Junior achievement: Local curlers gain ground
JANESVILLE Wisconsin’s Team Haag junior women’s curling team is moving up.
Skip Jenna Haag and Grace Gabower, both Milton High graduates, Chloe Pahl and Erin Wallace, each from Green Bay, and alternate Brittany Falk of Poynette, won the bronze medal at the Junior National Curling Championships in Massachusetts last month. The team finished fifth in 2012.
Team Solem of Minnesota won the gold medal and moved on to the Junior World competition in Sochi, Russia, the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics.
The Haag team suffered a heartbreaking semifinal loss to fall short of a chance for tickets to Sochi.
“We lost our semifinal game to a luck shot,” said Gabower, 18, who is a double major in business and communications at St. Norbert College. “We lost the semifinal game and (would have played) the gold medal game against a team that we beat. Had we gotten through the semifinal, I’m pretty confident we’d be in Russia.’’
Haag also felt the sting of the frustrating semifinal loss.
“It was a Hail Mary,” said Haag, 19, a human resources major at UW-Milwaukee. “We came back from three ends down.”
Haag tabbed the experience as a maturity-builder.
“We definitely improved from our first year (at junior nationals),” said Haag, who competed in Junior Worlds as a 17-year-old. “We went from fifth to third. We started to prove ourselves. We were down a lot and made a comeback to almost win.’’
Team Haag is the No. 3-ranked junior team in the country, so the curling world is starting to take note.
Haag and Gabower have been invited to play this May in Blaine, Minn., for the World University Games trials. The winner receives a berth in the World University Games in Torino, Italy, next December. Courtney George, a 2006 U.S. Olympian, and Ilene Sorumen, invited the pair to play for them.
“We have been to (George) camps,” Haag said. “Courtney and Ilene are from Duluth (Minn.), and we have been in competitions with them.’’
The competitive curling community runs deep, and as players gain stature, demand for their services rises.
“We play against the top teams in the U.S., and we’ve beat them,” Gabower said. “We beat last year’s national champions. I would say that we are good, and that people know about us.’’
Besides receiving requests to play in high-level tournaments, Team Haag’s reputation gives it a chance for sponsorships.
“It’s really a hard thing to get,” Gabower said. “We are pretty confident we will get sponsorship from the United States Curling Association, which would fully fund our team for next year.’’
It’s been a good run so far for Team Haag, which has played together for three years. Gabower said keeping the team together is demanding.
“It’s really a lot of dedication to stick with everybody,” said Gabower, who teaches a curling class at St. Norbert. “In the summer, we all sit down and make our schedules and try to get into the tournaments that count so we play against the better players that are going to make us better.’’
Team goals include winning the junior nationals and continuing on to reach the 2017 Olympic trials for the 2018 Games.
Gabower thinks her teammates maintain a special bond that came into play in at the Junior Nationals.
“Jenna was in the house (calling the shots), and she was getting kind of quiet,” Gabower said. “She lost her confidence, or something. We looked at her and said, ‘We think we need you to come out of the house and put somebody in there that’s confident,’ and she said, ‘OK.’”
“Some junior girls can be catty and more about ego, I’ve never been on a team that’s been willing to surrender to the fact that your ego is gone and it’s just about playing with your team.’’
Gabower puts a lot of faith in Team Haag.
“I wouldn’t want to play with another team,” Gabower said. “I have so much faith in our team.”
Ken Veloskey is a sportswriter for The Gazette.