This year’s European Junior Curling Challenge was held on January 3-8 at the Kisakallio Sports Institute which is located about 45 minutes from Helsinki and is surrounded by 250 hectares of wildwood. The tournament is a qualification tournament for European junior men’s and junior women’s teams with only the winner in each category qualifying for the World Junior Curling Championships.
England was represented by:
Junior men: Ben Fowler (skip), Ollie Kendall (vice-skip), Renz Bunag (second) and Cormac Barry (lead)
Junior women: Hetty Garnier (skip), Angharad Ward (vice-skip), Naomi Robinson (second), Lucy Sparks (lead) and Niamh Fenton (alternate)
The coach for both teams was Sara Jahodova and she has provided the following report of the competition.
This year 14 junior men’s teams (divided into two groups) participated in the tournament with Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic being the favourites for the gold. The junior men’s tournament is always very competitive and full of emotions. Our boys opened with a loss by 1-10 to Denmark. The boys were not completely settled as a team in this match and they struggled with the ice and judging the weight.
Their second game was against the fairly inexperienced team from Slovenia. The boys started to feel comfortable in their slides and their technique overall and won easily 16 -3. This was a very important win as it gave the team a much needed confidence boost. The next match against the Finnish boys did not start well for England with them 0-4 down in the second end. However, the boys fought back and a beautifully played and skipped offensive seventh end meant a second win for the English boys. In their fourth match, the boys tried to keep up with the well-playing Austrian team. The Austrians showed their take-out dominance in the sixth and seventh ends which resulted in a handshake and a final score of 8-3.
Another tough opponent was waiting for the English boys in the next match – the Netherlands. The boys made a lot of nice and precise shots during this match and Cormac and Renz revealed themselves as incredible sweepers showing great strength, effort and determination. Without the hammer in the last end and the score tied, Ben kept his cool and played a beautiful freeze with his last stone leaving the Dutch skip with a draw to 8 foot. The Dutch last stone went right through the house resulting in a steal of two and a third win for our boys. The last match in the round-robin was supposed to be an easy win for England but, unfortunately, and mainly due to a lack of concentration, England lost 4-7 to a team from Spain (for whom it was a first and only win in this tournament). However, after the conclusion of all round-robin games the English junior men’s team ranked fourth in Group A and qualified for the quarter-finals.
In the quarter-finals the English boys faced the winners of Group B – the undefeated team from the Czech Republic. The match opened with cautious defensive play from both teams. Our boys played extremely well and when they got the hammer in the fourth end they really showed-off their offensive skills. A steal of three in the fifth end by England was a great bonus and left the Czechs in the deep end with score 5-1. However, the experienced and determined Czech team pushed hard back and slowly dug their way up to 5-4. Our boys had the hammer in the last end but they were not able to capitalise on this advantage and gave up three to the Czechs. It was a heart-breaking loss for the boys in the quarter-finals but they should be proud of their overall performance as a team in this tournament. I am sure that they have earned the respect of all the teams they have come up against.
In the junior women’s category 12 teams divided into two groups competed for their place in the play-offs. The girl’s competition is usually quite unpredictable and offers many surprises. Our girls opened nervously against Hungary and they were trailing behind the Hungarian team for the entire match. Owing to their lack of experience with playing with time clocks they ran out of time which meant an automatic forfeit and a win for Hungary. In their second match the English girls faced Germany who traditionally have very solid players and are always tough opponents. It was a very cautious and tactical match with a good performance from both teams. With a steal of one in the last end, our girls got their first (and very valuable) win.
After this match, the girls had finally settled into their standard performance mode and Hetty started to feel comfortable in her ‘skip’ shoes. Straightforward and confident wins against Latvia and Estonia showed the real strength of the team. Hetty found a good balance between defensive and offensive play which suited everyone and the entire team got into the right rhythm. In the last match of the round robin stage of the tournament Niamh replaced Lucy to gain some experience at an international tournament and the girls continued with their winning streak with a victory over Finland 13-0. Overall, it was a second place for the English junior women’s team in Group B and a secure place in the quarter-finals.
Our girls took charge of their quarter-final match against Norway right from the beginning. The English team played their own game, capitalising on each Norwegian mistake and gaining confidence with every successful shot. A well-deserved 8-2 win over Norway and a place in the semi-finals for the English junior women. Unfortunately, the semi-final against Italy was a whole other story. The girls played very nervously and gave up three in the first end.
The Italians were playing very solidly and maturely and did not allow our girls to get back into the match. The final score 9-2 for Italy reflected the action on the ice accurately. However, our girls only had a couple of hours to recoup and find strength to fight for the bronze medal. The surprise of the tournament, Poland, awaited them in a nerve-wrecking bronze medal game. It was an interesting match with a level score until the sixth end in which the Polish girls stunned England by getting a three and taking a lead of 6-4. In spite of this, England dug deep and managed to take the game into an extra-end.
Without the hammer in the extra-end, Lucy placed two essential guards and the rest of the team produced nice come-around draws leaving Poland with difficult clearing and come-around take-outs to play. The Polish skip decided to play a fairly difficult hit and roll with her last stone and failed to execute it perfectly so that England stole one and got the bronze medal. Our girls performed really well throughout the tournament and gained another valuable experience of playing at a big competition on an international level. A well-deserved medal – congratulations! (Note that this was the second bronze medal in two months for Hetty, Naomi and Lucy who also played in the Europeans in Stavanger and got the bronze medal in the B Group there too).
For completeness, the Austrian junior men and Italian junior women won the gold medals and have qualified for the 2014 World Junior Championships in Flims, Switzerland.
The ECA are very grateful to Sara for her work with the junior teams – it cannot have been easy, especially when both teams were playing in the same session. Thanks also to the Kent and Sussex Junior Curling Club for their financial support.