SPOKANE, Wash. -- John Shuster completed an undefeated run through the USA Curling National Championships to successfully defend the men’s title.
Shuster’s club from Duluth, Minn., fended off Rich Ruohonen’s Minneapolis squad 8-6 in Saturday’s thrilling final in front of a capacity crowd at Eastern Washington University’s Recreation Center in Cheney.
The crew of Shuster (Superior, Wis.), Chris Plys (Duluth, Minn.), Matt Hamilton (McFarland, Wis.) and John Landsteiner (Duluth, Minn.) will represent Team USA at the world men’s curling championship, March 18 to April 5 in Glasgow, Scotland and also earned a berth in the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling season-ending Humpty’s Champions Cup taking place April 29 to May 3 in Olds, Alberta.
Shuster has now won nine national titles including five as a skip. What possibly makes this one unique is the reigning Olympic gold medalist was flying a bit under the radar this season entering the event as the third-ranked men’s team behind Ruohonen and No. 1 Korey Dropkin (Chaska, Minn.).
“It always feels great, man, especially this year everybody thinking it’s a kind of a down year for Team Shuster,” the skip said. “We played a lighter schedule so we would be full of energy coming here. We still played a really tough schedule just not quite as many events. I mean, by winning this game we have our winning percentage up higher than it has ever been as a team for the season, so I think we’re ready to go for the next step here.”
Team Shuster was planning on peaking for this week and hit their stride running the round-robin table with a perfect 9-0 record then added a decisive 8-2 decision over Ruohonen in the Page 1-2 playoff game to move straight to the final.
“I love playing national championships in the state of Washington,” Shuster said with a laugh. “We’re now 22-0.”
WATCH: @Shoostie2010 dishes on the fight til the end vs @TeamRuohonen tonight, another trip to Worlds and the importance of playing in a new Olympic qualification cycle! #TheOrleans #CurlingNats2020 🇺🇸 pic.twitter.com/fEduDvbgOt— Team Shuster (@TeamShuster) February 16, 2020
Ruohonen, who won the 2018 national title and also finished runner-up to Shuster last year, advanced with a 9-5 win over Chase Sinnett (Medfield, Mass.) in the semifinal.
It was a tight championship game from start to finish thanks to Ruohonen putting his team on his back to keep pace every step of the way with Shuster. The teams alternated singles in the first couple of ends, Shuster made a tap for two points in the third and Ruohonen drew for a deuce in the fourth. The teams traded single points again with Shuster hitting and rolling to the side of the button in five while Ruohonen drew against four counters and landed on the button in six to tie it 4-4.
Shuster kept his rocks on opposite sides of the house in the seventh and finished the end off with an open hit and stick to pot another pair, but Ruohonen responded drawing for two more points in the eighth to knot it up again at 6-6.
Ruohonen bailed out his team in the ninth promoting one of his rocks from the edge of the eight-foot circle to bump for shot rock at the side of the button. Shuster was still threatening to score big, however, he had to settle for only a single. His raise attempt rolled just a tad low and avoided disaster as it caught the backing to stay for shot rock.
That gave Shuster a one-point lead heading into the final frame but handed the hammer to Ruohonen. Shuster saved things with a clutch freeze landing right on the button and hidden under cover that Ruohonen was unable to unlock as his final shot crashed out.
“I thought they were fortunate to be in the game,” Shuster said. “Rich played amazing to keep battling because we were all over them from the first three rocks of the game on. We weren’t able to crack a big end on them there a few different times and then to have it come down like that, I think it’s not one I’ll ever forget the way that one ended, for sure.”
Team Shuster: John Shuster (Superior, Wis.), Chris Plys (Duluth, Minn.), Matt Hamilton (McFarland, Wis.), John Landsteiner (Duluth, Minn.)
Team Ruohonen: Rich Ruohonen (Brooklyn Park, Minn.), Greg Persinger (Fairbanks, Alaska), Colin Hufman (Minneapolis, Minn.), Phil Tilker (Seattle), Kroy Nernberger (Madison, Wis.)
Team Sinnett: Chase Sinnett (Medfield, Mass.), Sam Strouse (Midland, Mich.), Eli Clawson (Clarksville, Md.), Ethan Sampson (Edmore, N.D.), Trevor Marquardt (Poynette, Wis.)