The winter season of my third year of curling is winding down. We’re heading into the playoffs today, and I’m happy that I helped get our team on its best possible footing by winning my first game as a skip (or captain, if you prefer).
We’re heading into the playoffs with a 3-4 record, which is one reason why the other teammates were willing to let me hold the broom on Feb. 25. Heading into the last regular-season game at 2-4, we weren’t super effective during our prior game and let a close match turn into a rout.
I have to admit that I contributed to the loss — I strongly questioned some of the shot calling during a key point in the game. I did my best to shake it off and voice my support for the skip’s calls after that, but it was tough and I worried that I wasn’t doing my part to support the team effort.
After that tough end, all of us were off and the rest of the game didn’t end well. Afterward, Robert said I could skip the last game, in part, because it didn’t matter too much. I readily accepted because I was ready to try my hand again at skipping.
Heading into the last game, my all-time record as a skip could only be charitably described as abysmal. IIRC, I was 0 and 3. Two of those losses were relatively close — they came down to the last shot and my team just was on the losing end of those. My third loss was a blowout and I readily took the advice from my acting third/vice Thom to quit the game after it was clearly out of hand.
Although I’ve played around 60 games in my three years curling, I only skipped those four times. I’ve been happy to focus on contributing to the team in other ways, while leaving the skipping to others.
While I was excited to give being skip another shot, I quickly realized what our team strengths were. I agreed to be skip, but I announced that we would be keeping the same playing order — with me as lead, Andrew second, Carl third and Robert playing fourth. Traditionally, skips throw the last stones because those last two shots are generally considered the most important during each end of the game (and there’s a lot of pressure on the skip to make those shots).
As the sport of curling has evolved over the past 20 years, it’s become more common for skips to play out of order, e.g. not throwing fourth. A handful of the top teams in the world play with their skips in different positions.
I wasn’t necessarily thinking of the top teams when I set the playing order for Feb. 25. I was thinking about how our team played all season. Andrew and I had thrown first or second (aka, the front end), while Karl and Robert had thrown third or fourth (aka, the back end).
Each playing position has different roles to play as an end unfolds. While we obviously weren’t playing at our best during the season, I felt that we were in the positions that suited our strengths. Andrew and I could throw draws that would shape into guards in front of the house or settle down in the house. Karl and Robert often threw hits that we might need for takeouts or raises later in the end.
I opted to stay as lead while skipping because I wanted to help quickly get a read on the ice for the rest of the team (and Andrew is using a different delivery method that makes it difficult to get a time that works for the others on the team). I also was reluctant to throw third or fourth because I readily need more work on takeouts (I’ve been playing front end for most of my three years).
The order was set, but as game night neared, I began worrying more about the strategy — the other big component of being a skip. Throughout the season, I had been helping with reading the ice and occasionally offering some possible shot calls to the skip, but I hadn’t called an entire game, continuously thought about the ice or how my teammates were making shots.
I had been watching a decent amount of curling on TV this year. It’s been helpful to guess what shots the teams will take, see what shots they took and if it was effective. However, those are elite teams — they’ll be able to take shots that would be extremely difficult for less-experienced teams on less-than-perfect ice.
I went back through curling books on my Kindle for some curling strategy pointers heading into the game. There’s a lot of useful info in the books, but my eyes started to gloss over when the books started delving into shot strategy for specific setups (it’s useful, but I would require far more time than a couple days to really absorb such focused discussions).
Also, as Monday neared, it dawned on me that this game wouldn’t be as insignificant as we thought. Sure, we had a 2-4 record heading into the game, but most of the teams in the league were bunched together. Only one team had a 5-1 record — the rest had done a good job of beating up on each other. We were ranked seventh out of nine, but we could improve our postseason placement with a win.
I also saw the team we were playing — it was one that we nearly beat last season, but they won on a superb angle-raise to the button by Stefan. We had a chance of beating this team, but they weren’t going to be pushovers.
The basic strategies set forth in the curling books helped me formulate a straightforward plan that I thought we could follow to help score points when we had the hammer (the last-shot advantage) and to minimize giving up a big end when the opposing team had hammer.
When we gathered for the Monday game, I made sure we got together for a quick team meeting so that we would all be on the same page. The strategy would be pretty simple (it’s also fairly common, so I don’t feel I’m spilling secrets listing them here):
- Try to get a read on the ice as quickly as possible. Use my lead stones to determine how the ice was acting.
- Control the front of the house and stay above the tee line. It’s not the end of the world if a guard slips into the house, especially if it stays above the tee.
- Let the ice work for us, especially for takeouts. Instead of throwing heat when it’s not necessary, ease up a bit and let the ice and the sweepers help the stone out.
- Focus on draws, instead of takeouts.
- Communicate. Make sure everyone is on the same page before each stone is delivered.
- I also resolved to be very positive and encouraging with my teammates. While winning is nice, curling is a sport that is supposed to be fun.
- How we deliver the first stones depended on if we had the hammer or not. I decided that we would start off with an aggressive style of play.
While that was our game plan, the outcome depended on execution. Things weren’t perfect, but we got off to a fast start.
We took advantage of starting with the hammer and put a decent number of rocks in the house. I did my best to split the house to set up multiple points and used guards to our advantage. In the first end, there was a port in front of the house that someone could use to put a rock into the house. We tried to block it, but our stone went a little deep to the tee line. The opposition team wasn’t able to get into the house and we took three to start.
In the second, we didn’t have the hammer, so we worked to force the opposing team to just one point. I got more aggressive when we were able to get several rocks in the house and ended up stealing two.
The opposition team held onto the hammer for the third end, which turned out to be fairly similar to the second. At the end, we had three in scoring position and the opposition had to take out one for a single point.
We had the hammer for the fourth end, which was probably the messiest end. After setting up a couple guards on the left side of the sheet, a stone went a little deep behind the button. I didn’t want to take it out right away, instead trying to stay in front of it. That started a series of draws to the button. We found the right line and did a decent job of freezing or coming close.
The opposing team tried to clean things up, but there were still a couple of rocks near the lid. The opposing team’s last shot was solid, but we could get out of trouble with another draw near the button. It was a little heavy, but it was close. We gave up one (after measuring to see who had the second shot).
Execution wasn’t perfect early in the game. I got a little frustrated (and loud) when the sweepers didn’t stop sweeping when I called “off.” Thankfully, it didn’t affect the outcome of the game and they got better on listening to the call. Communication was important — I wanted the sweepers to give me more clues about the speed of the rock and the sweepers wanted me to communicate more about if the shot was on line.
Making sure everyone was on the same page helped secure the win. In the fifth end, we had the hammer. I was happy to keep on drawing to the button, but the other teammates (particularly the third) wanted to do takeouts on two opposition rocks near the center of the house. It was a sound strategy — taking out opposition stones reduces their chances of stealing more than one point (although we would want to score with hammer).
Although I was worried that takeouts aren’t a strong suit for our team, my teammates were confident they could make the shots — especially because it was on ice that we were familiar with. I reminded them to throw with just a little less weight and use the ice and we were able to get several takeouts.
Once a skip makes a call, the rest of the team is supposed to go along. During what would turn out to be our last shot of the game, I could see that we weren’t settled on what the plan was so I held up my arms to stop everything. After hearing that Carl was confident he could make the takeout, I was convinced and set up for the takeout. We took out one of opposition stones (and we were sitting shot, IIRC). It left one of theirs near the button but it would be difficult for them to score more than one (and they needed three to tie and force a tiebreaker).
At that point, the opposition had two or three stones remaining, but they had seen enough and conceded. We were in the fifth end, but the scoreboard reflected the score through four ends.
After the game was won, I reflected that it was my first win skipping. It was something that didn’t cross my mind when we were playing the game. Afterward, I was happy for the accomplishment.
It may be a short-lived feeling, especially because we will need to win our last two games to finish with a winning record on the season. We’re heading into the playoffs tonight and our first opponent is a familiar one — the same team we faced on Feb. 25. It will be interesting to see how this game unfolds.