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Eight Ends: Hasselborg, Jacobs in the midst of historic seasons

YORKTON, Sask. — Anna Hasselborg and Brad Jacobs joined an exclusive group with their Meridian Canadian Open title victories Sunday at the Gallagher Centre. 

Both captured their third consecutive Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling championships with Hasselborg’s Swedish squad edging Team Min-Ji Kim of South Korea 7-5 in an extra end for the women’s title while Jacobs and his Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., crew beat Toronto’s Team John Epping 6-5 in the men’s final. 

It might seem weird to say winning three in a row in the series is rare when we just had Brendan Bottcher and Rachel Homan pull it off last year but it’s a pretty short list of those who have accomplished that. On top of the four mentioned, only Glenn Howard and Kevin Martin have won three straight GSOC titles with Martin actually making it to five in 2007.

“It’s crazy to say that you’ve won three in a row, right?” Team Hasselborg third Sara McManus said.

Yes, McManus, it truly is.

Here are some more observations from the Meridian Canadian Open:

1st End: The sweet is never as sweet without the sour and Jacobs and Hasselborg had to work down to the wire and then some to secure their championships. Team Hasselborg’s wins in the triple knockout preliminary stage were actually all gritty affairs. Hasselborg needed to score three in the eighth to clip Laura Walker 6-5, steal two in the final frame from Homan to win 7-5 and swipe a point in eight to hold off Elena Stern 6-4 to qualify for the playoffs. Having the final require an extra end was all part of the grind.

It helps Hasselborg and her team are always talking about just focusing on turning the page when the going gets tough and keep at it.

“If we have a bad game and even like we got off pretty easy at the start of this tournament, we had a couple of steals for the win, so we just told ourselves, ‘It isn’t easy out there and just try to keep doing our best and keep getting something out of every shot,’” McManus said. “We said yesterday when we made it to the final, ‘We’re super proud that we are even here because we’ve had a tough tournament.’ But I think it makes it even better. That’s a lot of fun and I’m super proud of the girls.”  

Meanwhile, Jacobs built an early 4-0 lead in his final and looked to be cruising along until giving it back with the score tied 5-5 heading into the final frame. Jacobs needed to draw against two Epping stones with his last rock of the game with sweepers E.J. and Ryan Harnden pounding the ice to bring the title home.

“Obviously, it’s always nerve-racking to sweep that last one that you’re expecting Brad to throw really well and now it’s up to you to not mess it up,” E.J. Harnden said. “It was good to get that type of shot under our belts. The last couple of finals have been suspenseful but not having to make a draw to the four-foot for the win, so I think it was good for Brad and I think it was good for Ryan and me and a nice way to win it. We don’t really keep track of how we’re winning games, we just want to win them, and for us, it was nice to get that win with some pressure coming down to the wire and now we feel pretty good about it.” 

2nd End: One has to wonder now: Can Jacobs and/or Hasselborg keep up the streak? Jacobs and Hasselborg will have to play the waiting game until they begin their quest for four consecutive Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling titles though. The series doesn’t resume until the Princess Auto Players’ Championship, April 7-12, at Ryerson’s Mattamy Athletic Centre in Toronto. The crown jewel of the series is arguably the toughest to win with the top 12 teams based on the year-to-date rankings and the Pinty’s Cup — carrying a $75,000 bonus for the leaders — also on the line. 

It’ll just depend on how much more curling both teams will be playing between now and then with nationals and worlds occupying the schedule for the next couple of months. The world men’s curling championship wraps up only a couple of days before the Princess Auto Players’ Championship and takes place in Scotland, so fatigue and jet lag will also play a factor. Of course, they’ll have to get there first though.

Hasselborg, who finished runner-up at the Players’ Championship last year, will be aiming for a record-breaking fourth consecutive GSOC women’s title as well as becoming the first women’s team to complete a career Grand Slam (winning the four original championships in the series). 

3rd End: There has been a buzz rinkside about Team Kim and how, even at 20 years old, they’re already a force to be reckoned with. A couple of inside sources even declared they’ll be the best team in the world in a couple of years. Winning the KIOTI Tractor Tour Challenge Tier 2 title in November earned them a spot here and they exceeded expectations proving their worth as finalists.

“They are so young and so talented,” McManus said. “We played them at the World Cup last year in the final and we lost. They played very well. I am amazed by how well that team is playing and doing. They have nerves of steel just like being in the final here and their first real Grand Slam since they played in the Tier 2, so I think they have a really bright future. It will be fun to play them again.” 

4th End: Although it was an all-Canadian semifinals on the men’s side, it was the exact opposite in the women’s division with Hasselborg, Kim, Japan’s Satsuki Fujisawa, and Russia’s Alina Kovaleva reaching the final four. That shouldn’t come as a surprise considering more than half of the women’s division (nine of 16 teams) were international and only two Canadian women’s teams qualified for the playoffs. The Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling’s slogan is “the world’s best in one house” and the series prides itself on featuring top-quality competition from all over the globe, not just in Canada. Besides, to be the best you have to beat the best.

5th End: Reaching the men’s semifinal was a great tune-up for Mike McEwen and his Manitoba team as they now look to defend their provincial title in what’s arguably the toughest region. 

“We needed some sort of boost going into it because there are a lot of good teams in Manitoba as always and a lot of good young teams,” Team McEwen lead Colin Hodgson said. “If you roll over at all they’re going to pounce on you and you might not even make playoffs in that province.”

McEwen and Reid Carruthers each won a pair of provincial championships during the previous Olympic cycle. When McEwen joining forces with Carruthers, Hodgson, and Derek Samagalski last season, it put a huge target on their backs.

“It’s big for us that we can actually have confidence going into provincials because last year was kind of an interesting one,” Hodgson said. “We ended up playing really well but we had to work so hard mentally to actually be in that position because there’s a lot of pressure on us. You take the two teams that have won the last bunch of years against each other and you end up amalgamating the skips, everybody just expects you to win, which adds tons of pressure to it when you know how everybody else is and they want to dethrone one of Mike or Reid. Everyone plays up.”

6th End: Kim proved her team was well-deserving of the promotion from the Tier 2 stage and the same can be said for Korey Dropkin’s club in the men’s division. The Young Bucks from the United States qualified out of the B Event of the triple knockout to reach the quarterfinals.

Dropkin, 24, believes it’s something they should be proud of to not only start off with a couple of wins but also get into the playoffs.

“I think we had a really good time here,” Dropkin said. “We enjoyed the experience and it was nice for us getting the ability to play at this top-notch tournament and getting a tier 1 Slam under our belts, it’s huge for us to take this step, qualify and make the quarterfinals. Obviously, it didn’t end how we wanted it to. There are a lot of things we need to sharpen up going forward and for when we get into our next Slam but especially moving forward to men’s nationals. For us, just being here and being on this level, being against these big-name teams, it’s a big stride.”

Team Dropkin has risen up to 11th on the WCF World Team Rankings and should give defending champion John Shuster and his team a run for their money at the U.S. nationals. 

7th End: The Meridian Canadian Open was the final Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling event teams could win to secure a spot for the Humpty’s Champions Cup. The season finale event requires teams to claim a high-profile title in order to receive an invitation. 

Jacobs and Hasselborg’s success actually helps teams that have won elsewhere. One of the cavets is if a team wins more than one major championship it opens up a spot for a top tour winner to help fill out the 12-team fields. Elena Stern (Canad Inns Women’s Classic), Rachel Homan (Canada Cup) and Jennifer Jones (Shorty Jenkins Classic) are the front-runners to earn spots thanks to Hasselborg winning three GSOC titles and the European Championship. Jacobs’ three GSOC titles opened up two spots on the men’s side with John Epping (Shorty Jenkins Classic) and Bruce Mouat (Perth Masters) in line.  

Having said that, there are still qualifying events like the Brier or Tournament of Hearts, so not all hope is lost for the likes of Brad Gushue and Chelsea Carey who still need to find a way, any way, to get in.

8th End: As mentioned earlier, the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling is on hiatus until the Princess Auto Players’ Championship in April but there are still implications to consider in the meantime. The cutoff for qualification isn’t until March 10, so it’s worth keeping an eye on teams on the bubble, plus those just on the outside, as strong performances at provincials and nationals will ensure they secure an invitation.