Milton curling duo heads to nationals

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012
— Jenna Haag has been where Grace Gabower wants to go.

What stands between Haag’s return and Gabower’s first trip to the World Women’s Junior Curling Tournament this March in Ostersund, Sweden, is winning the 10-team Women’s Junior Curling National Championship, set for Sunday through Feb. 4 at the Madison Curling Club in McFarland.

Team Wisconsin, the No. 3 seed, begins the round-robin part of the tournament with games at noon and 4 p.m. Sunday. Round-robin play is Sunday through Thursday, with single playoff games Friday and the championship Saturday.

The 18-year-old Haag, a UW-Milwaukee freshman and 2011 Milton High graduate, is the skip, while 17-year-old Gabower, a Milton High senior, is one of three sweepers.

Curling is a sport where 40-pound granite stones are slid down a 150-foot long sheet of ice to a target called the house. The object is to have the stones stop as close to the center of the house as possible.

Team Haag won the Wisconsin Women’s Junior Curling Championship last December to advance to the national tournament as Team Wisconsin. Team Wisconsin is the first team from the Janesville Blackhawk Curling Club to win a Wisconsin Women’s Junior title.

Team Wisconsin is Haag, Gabower, Chloe Pahl and Erin Wallace, both of Green Bay, and Kendall Moulton of Chicago/Door County. Wally Henry of Beaver Dam, a US Olympic curling coach in 2010, coaches Team Wisconsin.

Henry told Haag he wanted to coach her and her teammates because they were unknown.

“He said he noticed how hard we work and we don’t have an ‘X’ on our back,” Haag said. “Teams that are seeded high are expected to do well, and the others are not expected to do well.’’

Haag made her trip to Sweden in 2008 and was the youngest competitor among 10 teams as a 14-year-old high school freshman.

“We finished eighth,” said Haag, who is competing in her fourth national tournament. “I’ve thought a lot about what has to be done to win it.’’

As skip for Team Wisconsin, Haag shoulders a big role. Haag sets the strategy for her four teammates. She throws the stones down the ice to get the team points.

Gabower said curling at a high level is stressful.

“It takes a mental toll,” Gabower said. “You’re always thinking. A match is three hours long, and strategy is always changing.’’

Haag said her job is to encourage the team and not show her frustration if the stones are not sliding right.

“People can’t see me angry or excited,” said Haag, who played on a team that lost a national title by a centimeter. “It gets frustrating, but you just stay confident and be there to lift (the team) back up.’’

Haag and Gabower each started curling as 5-year-olds when Gabower’s parents, Todd and Patrice, joined Haag’s parents, Jim and Connie, for recreational curling at the Blackhawk Club. Gabower’s mother and father started a youth curling program at Blackhawk.

The pair went through the ranks and became close friends. While Haag was on the winning national team in 2008, Gabower curled for a team that won the Minnesota state title. Haag’s team eliminated Gabower’s in a national semifinal.

Gabower said Team Wisconsin received a welcome dose of confidence by defeating the current Olympic US Junior Curling team en route to winning the state title, and she hopes the good vibes continue at nationals.

“It’s crossed our minds we could make it,” said Gabower, who is headed to St. Norbert College in fall. “The team we eliminated (at state) was the No. 1 seed.’’

Gabower said the key to success is to concentrate on playing relaxed.

“At the last game at state, it didn’t matter what happened. We were going to nationals,” Gabower said. “We didn’t put pressure on ourselves, and we had fun with it. We can play better and be super relaxed.’’

In other words, Team Wisconsin needs to stay cool as ice.

Last updated: 7:15 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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