By Christian Ryan, U SPORTS Curling Correspondent
Being named a U SPORTS national champion is a landmark event for any program or athlete. But for 2017’s curling title winners, it has greater significance for their respective past and future.
“It’s been a real whirlwind to win it, and all of the support that we’ve had through the whole thing is really excellent,” Burns explains. “We had our athletic banquet the other day and almost every athlete there was cheering us on. We got so many standing ovations. It’s just super exciting to win it, not just for ourselves but for Laurentian University.”
While the national title holds such relevance for the young curlers, it holds perhaps even more for those who have been involved with the Voyageurs over those long years.
“Twenty-six years I'm sure seems like an eternity for all of the amazing Voyageur student-athletes who have called Laurentian University home and were not able to experience (or) share in a national championship victory,” says Voyageurs curling head coach Ryan Lafreniere. “We've had a tremendous amount of amazing talent that has been a part of the 'Voyageur family' since 1991, so to be able to win a U SPORTS championship on behalf of the university, and to be able to promote our sport and our athletes in the process - well, we are quite proud to share our successes with all of our university and community supporters.”
The gold medal game featured an all-Northern Ontario matchup, with the Voyageurs defeating the host Lakehead Thunderwolves 7-4. Having both finalists hailing from Northern Ontario and competing in the OUA marks a significant departure for the tournament, won by a school from western Canada in three of the past four championships, including the defending champion Alberta Pandas, who also won gold at the 2017 Winter Universiade in Almaty Kazakhstan.
“We were super happy about Lakehead being there as well,” says Burns. “We’re both Northern Ontario schools, and it’s a proud thing to be from there.”
Even with the pressure of performing to end Laurentian’s title drought, Burns explains that the team was able to combat their nerves with Lafreniere’s guidance.
“(Lafreniere) was really helpful throughout the week,” she says. “He let us do our own thing and didn’t put too much pressure on us, and he said the right things at the right time. That made things a lot easier for us. Keeping the nerves calm helped us to play better and ultimately end up winning.”
Aside from attributing their national title to the calming influence of Lafreniere on Burns and teammates Sara Guy, Megan Smith, and Laura Masters, the skip maintains that the support of Laurentian was also key to keeping the team on track to becoming national champions.
“We knew that it would be a big deal for Laurentian,” Burns explains,” “but we already knew that we had come a long way and no matter what they were going to be proud of us. So we were able to take that off of our shoulders and just go out and enjoy curling.”
While the Laurentian Voyageurs women were redeeming a rocky history, the Memorial Sea-Hawks men’s team were looking to set up a dynasty. Having gone undefeated en route to the program’s first AUS title, the Sea-Hawks kept the streak alive by defeating the Alberta Golden Bears in the gold medal game 8-4 to finish with a perfect 9-0 record in the tournament.
“That’s something we definitely didn’t think was going to happen,” admits team skip and fifth-year business administration student Adam Boland. “We were looking at the team list before we went up, and we didn’t think anybody was going to go undefeated. We knew a couple of the teams from previous events, and we knew how strong they were…To go nine straight at a tournament of that calibre is pretty unheard of.”
With a rotating program in which teams earn the right to represent Memorial, this was the experienced curler’s first shot at representing the Sea-Hawks. Going undefeated at the conference and national levels has marked a major achievement in the curling careers of Boland and teammates Zack Young, Stephen Trickett, and Evan Kearley. The team was guided by longtime coach Gary Ryan who, having coached Boland for six years, provided the familiarity and stability required to achieve success on a national stage.
“It was an unbelievable feeling, one we really never expected to achieve,” Ryan said of the Sea-Hawks’ undefeated run. “When we were going up, (the team) were talking about the favourites, ‘the University of Alberta team is always strong, Laurier is always strong’. I said ‘You know what? We don’t know them and they don’t know us.’ We went in and we threw everything at them like we did at AUS, and our results showed.”
The chance to represent Memorial, and by association Newfoundland and Labrador, is not lost on Team Boland, whose goal is to represent their home province on another, larger scale, the Tim Hortons Brier, after Brad Gushue’s rink won the Canadian championship last month, opening up a spot in the tournament. To that end, Team Boland has wasted no time since returning from Thunder Bay, with preparations already underway to achieve their goal.
“We trained last night!” Ryan says. “We’re training as many nights as we can now until the ice goes away to be prepared for next year’s Brier play-down.”
Until then, the team is savouring this first taste of representing Newfoundland and Labrador in a national championship with their 2017 U SPORTS men’s curling title.
“It’s really cool to represent the school you’ve been attending for so long, as well as your province where Memorial is the only University on the island,” Boland says. “So you’re representing your province and your school. To wear the Sea-Hawk and have Memorial next to your name as well as Newfoundland and Labrador, it’s awesome to know that you’re representing two really supportive bodies.”