Will Sherry Middaugh finally get that maple leaf? That long sought after maple leaf?
Six times she's been to the national championships, five as a skip. Denied every time, although she has four Scotties bronze medals hanging somewhere at home.
Now, 17 years after she had her first chance to win a Canadian flag for the back of her jacket, Middaugh is one win away from getting it.
For the Olympic Games, no less.
Employing bullseye draw weight and enjoying the fruits of a disastrous sixth end for her opponent, Rachel Homan, Middaugh breezed to a 10-4 semi-final win and a spot in Saturday night's Olympic trials (Roar Of The Rings) final against four-time Scotties champ Jennifer Jones.
"I've never seen a more determined Sherry Middaugh," TSN analyst Linda Moore said, early in the telecast. "She looks so confident right now."
Indeed. With a feel for draw weight that has seemed automatic all week long, Middaugh is supremely confident. You could certainly hear it in her voice during the fifth end break, when she told interviewer Bryan Mudryk that "the ice has been exactly the same from game one to this game, which helps. Then there’s no doubt in the mind regarding the paths or what the speed is."
That's funny. You could ask about thirteen or fourteen other skips in this event and they would not echo that sentiment. But that's just how sure Middaugh has felt about both the ice and her teammates, Leigh Armstrong and Lee Merklinger. "We have incredible sweepers and they’ve judged perfectly all week, said Middaugh. "The ice has been great and draw weight has not been a problem."
Time and again this week, Middaugh has tossed pretty much just exactly the weight and line she's needed and against Homan, she mixed in some up-weight goodies, too.
Middaugh converted for a crucial three-pointer in the third end, with those sweepers Merklinger and Armstrong really digging in and being able to hold the line, just enough, to save the shooter on a down-weight takeout. That made up for a rare mistake by the skip, who'd stuck the shooter on a blank attempt in the first end and was forced to take a single. After that, though, Middaugh simply mowed Team Homan down.
It was her killer cross-rings double in the seventh that must have further deflated Homan's team, as they were attempting to scramble back from a 9-3 deficit. That dagger came an end after Homan's attempt at a raise takeout disastrously spilled her own stones and left Middaugh with a steal of three.
A matter of running out the rocks after that.
When they'd accomplished that, it meant Team Middaugh had won their fifth game in a row, after a slow start in the won-loss column that simply was not deserved.
Middaugh got of to a rough start to the week, dropping to 1 and 3 before getting on a roll and winning three straight round robin games to force a tie-breaker with Chelsea Carey, which she won, 6-3, to advance against Homan. In fact, Middaugh beat Carey twice in a row, as it was her 7-6 win in the final round-robin game that gave her the tie-breaker berth.
It was curious that Middaugh's team found itself so far down in the standings. As a team, they'd been among the leaders in shooting percentage from the get-go. That indicated that the wins would start coming, but you wondered if they'd just run out of track before they could get rolling.
By the time the semi-final was underway, the team from Coldwater, Ontario, was really humming.
Now, the focus is on a winner-goes-to-Sochi final, with four time Scotties champion Jennifer Jones as the obstacle. One obstacle. Another might very well be the MTS Centre crowd who will undoubtedly give the distinct impression that they are behind Jones, who curls out of Winnipeg's St. Vital club.
As was the case with Homan at the Scotties (and Middaugh in the semi), Jones has had that look in her eye this week and it's left you with the definite feeling she is on a mission. Really, Team Jones ought to have run up a perfect record, as it was questionable strategy and uncharacteristically poor shotmaking that had them hand a win to Val Sweeting on Monday night. Other than that, they've been the picture of thoroughness.
Jones and teammates Dawn McEwen, Jill Officer and Kaitlyn Lawes have had a very good week, in Winnipeg, leading all others in shooting, at 86%. Middaugh's team was third in that regard, at 84%.
In sizing up this final you'd, of course, start with the skips. Wouldn't you know it, Middaugh and Jones finished the round-robin with identical 84% marks, tied for first.
Lawes was tops among vices at 84% while Jo-Ann Rizzo - who shot a superb 91% for Team Middaugh in the semi-final win over Homan - was third at 82%. (Rizzo fired an 88% in the tie-breaker against Carey, indicating she's raised her game at exactly the right moment).
Among the seconds, Merklinger tied for first with a mark of 87%, while Officer was fourth at 84%.
At lead, McEwen set the pace at 92% while Armstrong finished the week in sixth place, at 85%.
Where it most counts - the scoreboard - these two teams have not met much this season. In fact, not once in any major competition. That is, until this past Monday morning when Jones scored two in the tenth and then stole two more in the eleventh to take a 9-7 decision.
Now, they meet again. Jones, who's worn Canada's colours four times over her career and Middaugh, who may well be on the verge of snagging that elusive maple leaf for the first time.