Lack of practice a minor inconvenience for Team Toner

Team Toner Supplied

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A lack of quality practice time may be vastly overrated.

No, that is certainly not the belief of Team Toner, the Curl Sudbury-based U18 women’s team that features skip Mia Toner, vice Valerie Ouimet, second Justine Toner and lead Clara Dissanayake.

It only might seem that way to the outside observer, looking in.

Despite only hitting the ice for one practice session in Oakville at the end of August — curling ice in Sudbury is generally installed in the first week of October — the Toner quartet won five straight games last weekend, advancing to the final of the U18 Oakville Optimist Bonspiel before finally tasting defeat.

A 7-4 setback at the hands of Sydney Taylor from Burlington was the only blemish for a squad which, quite honestly, came in with very little to lose this early in the season.

“We were in the minority,” said Ouimet, a Grade 11 student at College Notre Dame.

“A lot of the teams that we talked to were saying that they had already been to one or two spiels and that they already had ice for two or three weeks. It’s a completely different vibe, for us, but at the same time, it’s really good for us. Once you start playing, it’s like you were just there, at least for me personally.”

It showed on the ice as the Toner rink downed Ryenne O’Keefe, 5-3, Jenny Madden, 6-5, Asia MacDonald, 7-6, Katelin Langford, 7-4, and Madden for a second time in the semifinals, 7-4, before settling for second-place accolades.

Through it all, the still very young U18 team tried not to lose sight of the past 18 months and the challenges of a 2020-21 season that wasn’t.

“We were grateful just to be on the ice and tried to just be in the moment and enjoy every shot,” said Ouimet. “Mia and I were in the house at one point and she kind of mentioned something about this not being just a practice game.

“It really hit me; it was awesome to think about really playing. We took a second, looked around and kind of said, OK, let’s do this.”

While the finely tuned touch of elite curlers will take a few bonspiels to fully return, Ouimet and company were more than pleased with the decision-making process that would lead to squeezing out five consecutive triumphs by three points or less.

“Our strategy was great, especially after not being on the ice for a while,” she said. “It took a couple of games, but once we got back into it, our strategy was on point. We had some great discussions and really stuck together when it came to strategy. That was one of our strong suits this weekend.”

Another came via their off-season off-ice commitment, as Team Toner has partnered with Stephanie Thompson of Empowered Performance, taking advantage of the simple fact that they are maturing physically as athletes.

“With all of the training this summer, I have gotten a lot stronger, especially with my kick-out,” said Ouimet.

“I’m a lot more comfortable throwing bigger weight in those instances where we need to — and I have a crisper release. Those are the kind of shots that can give you a real confidence boost.”

With coaches Lee Toner and Luc Ouimet both able to tap into Brier experience — Louise Logan rounds out the coaching staff for the team — the teenage girls are being well-schooled on maintaining an even keel, even as success comes early for the talented foursome.

“You try not to think about that too much, just go through every tournament trying to play our best,” said Valerie. “We learn from everything. Our team is very good at debriefs. After every game, we have a good debrief, win or lose. We talk about everything that we liked, everything that we didn’t like.”

Joining Team Toner in Oakville was the Brendan Rajala U18 men’s team representing Curl Sudbury, back again this year with vice Ian Deschene and a front-end tandem of Jesse Crozier and Kyle Vainio. The locals posted a record of 1-3 in pool play, but edged Tyler McTavish 7-6 in the B Championship semifinal.

Unfortunately, with a final contest set for 6 p.m. Sunday evening in Oakville, Team Rajala opted to pass on their last encounter, thankful simply to be able to get a nice, solid weekend of curling under their belts before heading north.

For local skip Tracy Fleury and her Manitoba trio of Selena Njegovan, Liz Fyfe and Kristin MacCuish, there simply is no good reason to slow down. Team Fleury increased its season-opening winning streak to 14 games, tacking on another seven last week in capturing the Sherwood Park Women’s Curling Classic.

That triumph came on the heels of their bonspiel victory in Oakville two weeks ago. This time around, the red-hot quartet stopped Laura Walker, 7-6, Krysta Hilker, 8-6, Serena Gray-Withers, 7-4, Gabby Wood, 8-0, all from Edmonton, in round-robin play.

Facing American Cory Christensen in the quarter-final, Fleury counted one in the seventh to snap a 5-5 tie and added a steal of one in the eighth for the 7-5 win. It was a much more methodical approach in the semis, as three two-point ends, with hammer, and a steal of one were more than was necessary to beat Eugjung Kim of Korea 7-3.

All of which brought Team Fleury back to a familiar foe. In getting the better of Kerri Einarson, the 35-year-old skip followed the same pattern as the QF, deadlocked at 4-4 after six ends, but using the hammer and a steal en route to a second straight top-end payout.

Rounding out the weekend bonspiel circuit, in terms of local involvement, was the Kitchener-Waterloo Fall Classic. With a 20-team field of women’s teams, it was unusual to see three of the four teams with Sudbury content jammed into a single pool, though it was likely just luck of the draw.

Emerging from Pool C was Team Mann, with Kira Brunton at vice, undefeated with a record of 4-0, while Krista McCarville (Kendra Lilly at vice) finished 2-2 and Team Little (Marie-Elaine Little, Abby Deschene, Zoe Valliere, Keira McLaughlin) came in at 1-3.

Ironically, Lauren Mann faced Isabelle Ladouceur’s Sudbury-based crew in quarter-final play, with Ladouceur, Jamie Smith, Lauren Rajala and Katie Shaw holding on for a 6-4 win after capturing three of their first four preliminary games. In the end, Team Ladouceur succumbed to Kerry Galusha of the Northwest Territories, dropping the semi-final 8-2 with Galusha beating Hollie Duncan in the championship affair, 13-7.