Seven women’s teams have been cut to three for the later stages of the Scottish Curling Championships, with Teams Fleming, Muirhead and Smith left standing.
Team Muirhead won six from six in the round robin, though it was not easy – they may have started with an 11-1 romp against Team Gina Aitken, but against Team Smith it was very different.
Team Smith stole three in the first end, and although they scored four in end two, it was Smith who led 9-7 into end nine – only for Muirhead to score two and steal two to win a pulsating contest 11-9.
It was, you might say, a dress rehearsal for the 1v2 page playoff between them, and skip Eve Muirhead was pleased to have a tight game as preparation for the weekend.
“We’ve had a strong round robin,” she said, “and it’s always good to have those close games, down to the last stone, and seeing how the ice copes with that.
“It was a close game, but we battled hard after giving up a three early doors, we forced them to play a tough last shot and came away with the win.”
Coach Glenn Howard was equally pleased with how things have been going for the defending champions.
He said: “We’ve played really well this week and won a lot of games early, so it’s nice to get a game that goes to 10, as the ice can change, and we learned a ton from it.
“I’ve been so impressed – every game they’ve come out firing, made a ton of shots, high percentages, and not letting up despite getting an early lead.
“We’ve only been down a couple of times in the six games. [The Smith game] showed the girls have grit, they have what it takes to come back, and I like what I’m seeing.”
As for what Howard has brought to the table, Muirhead said: “Loads. We didn’t really think twice about who we wanted to ask to be our coach, and when Glenn said yes, that was special for me because he’s always been a legend to me, I’ve always looked up to him and watched him play.
“He’s brought so much to this team, we’re working well together, getting better and better, and developing a lot of aspects, and so far things have been good.”
In a playing sense, Muirhead said their coach ‘still has it’, and he was keen to get in some practice time himself during the week.
“Ironically I have a big event coming up myself, the Brier – you may have heard of it – and I’ve got to head out to St Johns next Thursday, so I’ve got to get a little practice in,” he said.
“My old body needs a little bit here and there.
“The conditions here are very similar to the ice I’m going to get at the Brier, so that’s a bonus for me.”
And coaching the Scottish champions?
“It’s been a blast,” he said. “It’s something new to me, I haven’t done a lot of coaching in the past.
“Eve sent me a message about a year ago, and because it’s Eve Muirhead and the girls, who I know really well, that was a big plus for me – and I have a big soft spot for Scotland, so those two together meant it was a no-brainer for me.
“It’s been a pleasure. The girls have been incredibly respectful, they listen to me but challenge what I’m saying too, so hopefully it’s a match made in heaven.”
With her Olympic dream on the back burner for now, Muirhead is focused on the weekend and claiming yet another Scottish title.
“Of course [the Olympics are] a motivation – ever since I threw my last stone in Sochi to get the bronze medal, I’m thinking about the next one and wanting to get better.
“So it’s always on your mind, but first things first, this is the Scottish Championships and this is what we focus on.”
The rink in her sights for the 1v2 playoff includes two former team-mates, Claire Hamilton and Sarah Reid, and they have had a fine week with Team Smith.
They won four and lost two, a 9-3 reverse against Team Gina Aitken turning out to be a blip, while they impressed against Team Muirhead in the last round robin match.
Hamilton said: “We were lucky enough that the game didn’t really matter, so it was a nice chance to play them for the first time this season – one of the toughest teams around – ahead of the page playoffs.
“We’re encouraged by the performance and look forward to playing again tomorrow.”
And, given the line-up of Hamilton, Reid, Kerry Clark, Hazel Reid and alternate Laura Ritchie is a new one this season, I asked whether making the 1v2 game was more than they could have expected.
“It probably is, yeah,” Hamilton said.
“We didn’t really know what to expect coming into this week, as although we’ve played a lot this season there’s not been many events where we’ve played all the Scottish teams, so there are some we haven’t played.
“We’ve been abroad on tour, not always on the same style of ice as Perth, so it’s been a good chance to see how we match up against everyone else in Scotland.
“We’re happy with where we are and are looking forward to it, and whatever happens we’ll be proud of how we’ve done so far.”
One of Team Smith’s victims were Team Fleming, as they went 7-1 down after five ends, before pulling it back to 8-8, Smith ultimately holding on to win 9-8.
Defeat pushed Team Fleming to a W2 L3 record, but they won their last round robin game 9-4 against Team Gina Aitken, and then defeated Team Karina Aitken in a tiebreaker, to make the semi-final, where they will play the loser of the 1v2 playoff.
Skip Hannah Fleming said: “We probably haven’t had the week we’d hoped we would have, but we’re doing it the hard way.
“We seem to be on a bit of a roll now, getting some momentum, and we’re into the playoffs so goal one is achieved.”
Did the comeback against Team Smith, albeit not getting the win, add to their confidence?
“Maybe in a roundabout way,” said Fleming.
“We had a really poor first half of the game, so if we are to play them tomorrow we can’t give it away early, and we’ll have a good chance of winning.
“I think we could tighten up on a few things here and there but we’re going in the right direction now.”