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Tim Hortons Brier: Can Northern Ontario break through?

CP PhotoTeam Northern Ontario: (L to R) Ryan Harnden, Brad Jacobs, Scott Seabrook and E.J. Harnden.

Brad Jacobs has known a world where Northern Ontario was a reigning Brier Champion.

Barely, though.

Coming into this world in June of 1985, he arrived just a few months after the region's last win, Al Hackner's legendary "the shot" victory over Alberta's Pat Ryan.

In fact, no one on Jacobs' team would have any recollection of the event. Vice E.J. Harnden, 28, wouldn't have reached his second birthday. Lead Scott Seabrook, like Jacobs, is 26. Second Ryan Harnden, the "baby" of the crew at 25, was born more than a year after Hackner's triumph.

Can the young guns from Sault Ste. Marie bring the region it's first national men's curling championship in 27 years? Obviously it won't be easy, but they do appear to have what it takes to hoist the trophy a week from Sunday in Saskatoon.

They're young but filled to the brim with experience, totalling 10 appearances at the Brier between them. They're dedicated to fitness and nutrition. They feel, maybe most importantly, that they've gotten their mental game in order as well.

"We're definitely not just happy to be here," said Jacobs over the phone from Saskatoon. "It's our third trip in a row so obviously we feel more capable of being able to win the Brier now more than ever. We're here with a goal in mind and we're definitely sure we can achieve that goal."

The team burst into national prominence at the 2010 Brier, in Halifax, where they surprised many observers by not only avoiding jitters, but by steaming into the playoffs with a record of 9 and 2 and very nearly upending Ontario's Glenn Howard in the 1 vs 2 game. Instead of stepping directly into the final with a win there, the Northern Ontarians were forced into a semi final appearance, where they were blasted by eventual champ Kevin Koe, of Alberta. A year later they were back at the Brier, in London, Ontario. (It was there that Seabrook joined the team. In Halifax, lead stones were thrown by Caleb Flaxey)

Although they compiled a respectable 7 and 4 record at the 2011 event, the team narrowly missed out on the playoffs and was shown the door early.

Rather than shrug their shoulders and feel satisfied with another decent showing, Jacobs and company thought about what they needed to take the next couple of steps to be Brier champions. It was decided they could use some psychological input.

"When you get to a certain point in curling it's pretty tough to improve your delivery, improve the way you throw the rock, improve your feel," said Jacobs. "It's all repetitive as far as the physical aspect of curling goes. The next step in becoming a great team, and you ask any of the great teams, it's all mental."

Northern Ontario Skip Brad Jacobs. -CP

Taking the lead, Jacobs says, of other high performance curlers like Kevin Martin, Koe and Brad Gushue, who've all enlisted the help of a team psychologist, Team Jacobs brought in Dr. Arthur Perlini, the Academic Dean and Associate Professor of Psychology at Algoma University, in The Soo.

Dr. Perlini began his work with them last September. They've met with him "8 to 10 times" since then and Jacobs claims it's made a big difference.

"He's brought our mental game up to another level. All  four of us are in a fantastic state of mind. The best we've ever been in. That would be the biggest thing we've improved on over the last couple of years."

"The goal is to win the Brier but the process of achieving the goal is the most important thing. And that is staying in the present. And being focussed on each and every shot. So, as far as we're concerned, the mental aspect is one hundred per cent the most important thing."

"We're definitely a lot better at sticking with each other. We're a lot more mentally focussed all the time. And even more driven. And better at staying in the present."

To ensure the foursome stays on mental track, Jacobs says Dr. Perlini will be available for phone consultations. In fact, the good doctor might likely be the one to place the calls.

"He's all over us. He'll be wanting to chat and see how everyone's doing."

It seems Northern Ontario's curling team has just about all its ducks in a row and may be poised to end that long championship drought in 2012. Expectations seem to be higher than they have been in years.

"Everyone comes up to us and they're appreciative of the job we've done the last couple of years," began Jacobs. "More so, I think, this year, than any of the other years, people are coming up to us and saying 'you gotta win that thing and bring it back to Northern Ontario, and you're fully capable of doing it.' Hearing stuff like that, it shows how important it is to Northern Ontario and to our city. We hear it and it gives us drive and motivation. It makes us feel good and more confident."

Jacobs and his teammates believe they possess the physical skills needed to be national curling champions. Not many would argue that. Question is: Have they harnessed the psychological toughness it takes to be Brier Champions?

If so, Northern Ontario's icemen may have cometh, once again.

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