TEAM NORTH DAKOTA
Journey to the US Junior National Curling Championships
by Kristi Johnson
In 2009, four friends decided they needed an activity in the winter that was more productive than Xbox. “We have been friends since elementary school, and we knew we wanted to do something active and fun together, so my uncle suggested we look in the Fargo Parks and Recreation catalog,” said Branden Scheel, team skip. “That weekend, we could go to the ‘Try Curling Open House’ or ‘Learn Lacrosse Meeting.’ We decided to visit the curling club.”
After just a few hours on the ice it was obvious that curling was a natural fit for these boys. “Sliding, balance, sweeping, good hand-eye coordination and strategic thinking are key elements in curling,” said Tyler Johnson, team captain. “None of us knew anything about the rules of the game. The first week we just would take aim and hit opponent’s rocks as hard as we could. It was more like ‘pinball’ then curling.”
Then an NDSU college student, Evan Workin, volunteered to start coaching the team. “He was where we are now, training for his first Junior National Championships,” said Aaron Johnson, team second. “It was pretty cool having a college guy take interest in our team. He taught us the basics of curling and inspired us to be our best.” Workin coached the boys in their early years.
Curling is played with eight 45 pound granite stones that a 4-person team slides, sweeps and controls to the ‘house’ (target at opposite end of the ice.) The team with the closest rock to the goal wins the end. Teams orchestrate a game with ‘chess-like’ strategic precision that often comes down to officials measuring a rock to see which is closest to the ‘button’ – the center of the goal.
“Our first bonspiel didn’t go so well,” said Hunter Dennison, team lead. “We attended the CanAm Bon Spiel [bonspiel is a curling tournament] in Grand Forks and we were beat by a group of high school Canadian girls.” Curling can be played boys/girls, with a mixed team, against any age, depending on the spiel; it is a game of experience, strategy and patience.
“But then we caught a break,” said Dennison. “A few weeks later a team dropped out of the ND High School Championships that were being hosted in Fargo.” The bon spiel coordinator called and asked if this 7th grade boys’ team would be a fill-in team, so they wouldn’t have to reset all the brackets.
“We said ‘yes’ and had no hopes of doing more than not embarrassing ourselves,” said Scheel. “Then we beat the reigning high school champion team.” This was the boost the boys needed to train harder and push themselves further in the sport. “We worked with our Coach the rest of the season and went to the U14 ND Bantam Championships – and won.” Since then, the boys have won two bantam championships and back to back North Dakota High School State Championships.
“Curling competitions are different than other high school sports,” said Kyson Smith, team fifth. “You go to a bon spiel and you might be competing against current and former world champions, former Olympians and other internationally recognized players.” The level of play at bon spiels can be very intense. “The better the competition, the better you want to play,” said Aaron Johnson. “We’ve even had the opportunity to have some training, at camp, with the past Canadian Men’s Olympic Coach.”
Friends On and Off the Ice
“I mainly started curling just to have fun with my friends,” said Dennison. “We’ve been friends for lots of years. Four of us our seniors together at Davies High School in Fargo and we are doing something not very many other people have done.”
“We grew up sleeping over at each other’s’ houses, swimming in each other’s pools, waterskiing at the lake and as baseball teammates. We travelled to Vikings games and Valley Fair together,” said Aaron Johnson. “We even tag along on each other’s family vacations,” said Tyler Johnson. The bond on and off the ice is strong. “Tyler and Aaron might be twins, but we’re all brothers,” said Dennison.
What Makes This Team Different
The amount of years these boys have played together as a team is very unique. “Normally at this age, kids jump from one team to another. They may decide that curling isn’t for them, or they’re too busy with other sports and school activities to travel and play competitively,” said Workin. “This team came into curling as a team. They’ve always competed as this team. They have a strong bond as brothers and friends, and they communicate better than most other teams because of it.”
“My favorite thing about curling is the team aspect. You must work together in order to win, but you also have to perform your best in your position,” said Dennison. Last year, Aaron Johnson broke his wrist while snowboarding. “We knew Aaron was going to be out for part of the season, so if we wanted to stay competitive, we needed to add a fifth member to our team,” said Scheel.
The boys knew of someone, that they had competed against over the past few years, who also was in need of a team. Kyson Smith, from Minot, was asked to join team. The rest of Smith’s former teammates had aged out of junior events. The five boys gelled together and continued to win. Smith’s dad, a former member of the Men’s North Dakota Curling team, was also brought on as the team’s new coach.
Positions on the Ice
Skip – Branden Scheel, ”It’s the skip’s job to be the “know it all” on the ice. I have to be strategy man on the team and have a plan for all situations. The skip also has to be able to read the ice and how it is playing – faster or slower than usual. The skip must know what shot you are going to play before the first rock is thrown, based on how we want to throw the last rock and every rock in between. The skip is always looking ahead and at any possible opportunities so that the team can gain the advantage for that end.”
Lead – Hunter Dennison, “It’s my job to put up two tough guards every round. I am the protectorate of the house. I am also a strong sweeper. That means with every rock my teammates throw, you will see me in front of the stone helping to guide – or curl – the rock.”
Second – Aaron Johnson, “As the second, my job is to be flexible. A variety of situations may present themselves, I may need to throw draws, peels, bumps, take-outs, or splits, depending on how our team strategy corresponds to the first four rocks of each end. It is critical for me to be accurate, because I help set the table for the second half of each end where strategy is more prominent. Before and after my two rocks have been thrown, it is my job to help sweep the rocks of my teammates.”
Captain/Vice Skip – Tyler Johnson, “As vice skip of the curling team, one of my jobs is to consult with the skip during the last four rocks our team throws in order to execute the best strategy. I throw rocks five and six, and these rocks, depending on the situation at hand, may be used for nearly any type of shot you can think of, whether it be a double take-out, a bump, or a draw to the button. During the first and second’s rocks, my job is to sweep, and during the skip’s rocks, my job is to skip. Essentially, a vice skip needs to be the most versatile player on the team – I must sweep effectively and also be reliable when it comes to strategy.”
Alternate/5th – Kyson Smith, “I rotate in the positions of Lead and Second. In big competitions, like Nationals, we play up to 10 – 10 end games. That means when you are one of the first three guys, you could actually be running up and down the ice, while sweeping, approximately 2.25 miles every game. Being an experienced alternate means rotating in during the competition and keeping our team strong. We play a scheduled rotation. That means we know who is sitting out a game and that person assists the coach with statistics and scouts the opponents.”
Goals at Nationals
“We are so excited to go to Nationals. We’ve worked really hard and feel we earned it this year,” said Scheel. They’ve been close two other times. “We were so close to going to Nationals the last two years,” said Tyler Johnson. “Both years, we made it to the championship game and it came down to the very last rock thrown.” Last year’s game required two extra ends to determine a winner. “This is our year,” said Smith. “We are all strong and healthy. We’ve put in the hours on the ice and we all work really well together. We have synergy.”
This year’s goal was to make it to Nationals. “After we won the ND Junir Championships, our parents asked each one of us what our goal is for Nationals. I think we all agreed – we want to have the time of our lives. We want to play well and then we want to go to college with a great memory of knowing we accomplished something not many other people have done, and we did it together, as friends,” said Aaron Johnson. “Winning wouldn’t be bad either,” joked Scheel.
Team North Dakota will enter the Nationals with a one in ten chance of winning the event. The winning team becomes TEAM USA and will represent the USA at the Junior World Curling Championships February 26-March 5 in Flims, Switzerland. In 1983 and 1984, Team North Dakota won Nationals, and in 1984 went on to win the Gold Medal at the World Championships. Team North Dakota has a strong history of being competitive at Nationals, dominating the ice in 70’s.
Website to watch the event live
The US Junior National Curling Championships will be streamed live at http://www.ustream.tv/channel/tesn-washington