The Ontario University Athletics curling championships are only a couple weeks away and for head coach Matt Wilkinson, he’s entering familiar territory.
Wilkinson, the new coach of the Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks curling team, is preparing for the five-day event with the Hawks men’s and women’s rinks, who are coming off of sweeping gold at the provincial level.
The women’s team remained fairly intact, with the rink only losing lead Megan Arnold to graduation. The rink, with skip Chelsea Brandwood, vice Brenda Holloway and Riley Sandham are joined by Kirsten Marshall, who takes the lead spot. Last year, the women’s rink captured OUA gold for the second time in as many years, finishing fourth in the U Sports Championships.
“They’ve been working well, doing prep,” Wilkinson said.
“The Brock exhibition event had some highs and lows, but identified some of the important aspects there that the team and the coaching staff has been working on to make sure that they are ready in two week’s time.”
The men’s rink is in more of a unique situation.
After successfully capturing gold at the national level, all four members of last year’s men’s lineup aged out and were replaced with a new lineup.
Wilkinson said one of the biggest challenges for the men’s team is that all the players haven’t been in the same province for a while. Currently, lead Russell Cuddie is in Almaty, Kazakhstan representing Canada at the 2017 Winter Universiade, while Matt Hall and Jeffrey Wanless are in Victoria, British Columbia playing in the Canadian World Junior championships.
“One of the more interesting things on the men’s side [is] all four gentlemen who were on the men’s team last year aged out,” Wilkinson said.
“They all played together for many many years and we’ve got this new group of guys, some in their second-year and then there’s a couple in their third or fourth, but they’re not going anywhere.”
“It’ll be nice to put a little rubber stamp on it this year and then see where we can go from there. That’s our goal,” he continued.
One of the other challenges the rink faces is the new venue for the curling championship. For the last six years, the tournament was held at the Guelph Curling Club, but this year, the teams face off in Oshawa.
Aside from the venue change, athletes will notice a few other changes. The length of time between games has increased, meaning that athletes are curling from 7:30 in the morning until close to midnight, and instead of three hour gaps between games, the down time has doubled. The playoff format is also being altered, with the top four teams from each pool making it to the playoffs instead of the top three. All teams play in the quarterfinals, instead of the first-place team receiving a bye into the semifinals.
Currently in his seventh year as a varsity coach, Wilkinson understands that when it comes to the university circuit, rinks can do everything all year, but it all comes down to five days. It’s about taking it in little strides at a time, and then there’s a quick turnaround, going into a lot of curling in a short time span. That experience, accompanied with the fact that he’s done this more than once before with different teams both inside and outside of the school stream.
But one thing he remembers as a former coach for both Brock and the University of Guelph, is that Laurier was always the game he circled and knew that he wanted to have a good game against.
“You knew they were going to be a team going to be there at the end of the week,” he said.
“It’s nice to put the shoe on the other foot and be that team now and hope that we’ve prepared both teams well, that we’re ready to go come Feb. 16.”