Ontario Winter Games a test for Team Branconnier
by Randy Pascal
Some have certainly suggested that one of the key mandates of the Ontario Winter Games – and the Ontario Summer Games as well, for that matter –
lies in the opportunities that it creates for young athletes across the province, a chance to explore their relative competitiveness opposite brethren with
whom they might not normally cross paths.
While many a young local curling team has already ventured frequently to the southern band of Ontario, testing themselves against the very best, it does
not necessarily hold true for every single Sudbury and area competitive grouping of teenage curlers.
Last weekend, a pair of local entries were crowned as OWG qualifier champs in Sault Ste Marie. There is absolutely no doubt that the Idylwylde U18
girls gold medal winning rink of Bella Croisier, Jamie Smith, Piper Croisier and Lauren Rajala have racked up plenty of highway miles since
the beginning of September, experience that will prove helpful come time for the 2018 Winter Games in March.
The same, however, cannot be said for the Idylwylde boys team of Samuel Branconnier (skip), Nathan Leonard (vice), Patrik Labrosse
(second) and James McVittie (lead) that will join Team Croisier at the bi-annual multi-sport event in the new year.
“Orillia (site of the 2018 Winter Games) is kind of like a test for us,” said Branconnier, a 14 year old grade nine student at Collège Notre-Dame.
“We want to see how we fit with other teams. Of course, we’re probably going to be one of the youngest teams there. This is a U18 tournament, and our
average age is about U15.”
Fair to say that their journey to the Games is far more about the experience itself than necessarily any illusions of grandeur. In a city that has not
lacked in up and coming young curling talent more than willing to see if they could replicate the steps of the likes of Tracy Horgan (now Fleury),
Tim Phillips, Kendra Lilly, Jamie Morphet, Evan Lilly and countless others who have enjoyed success prior to celebrating their 20th birthday, Team
Branconnier has followed a more modest path to this point.
Now three years into their coming together as a team, the boys readily acknowledge a more relaxed approach than some of their competition. “We have a
lot of fun,” stated McVittie, the eldest team member at sixteen, completing his grade 11 year at Ecole catholique du Sacré Coeur. “We’re not always
serious, it’s more enjoyable. Before games, we can kind of mess around, have a little bit of fun there.”
“Once we get on the ice, we try and stay more focused, talk more about the game and less about what’s happening outside of the rink.” Though that might
be the goal, it’s not always achieved with this happy-go-lucky quartet. “We try and stay focused during our games and make our shots,” admitted Leonard, a
15 year old grade ten student at St Charles College.
“Sometimes it’s too light and we have to get back in the right mindset. We get a little too silly, at times.” For a squad that certainly could seldom if
ever be accused of over-confidence, their recent victory at the Tarentorous Curling Club in the Sault, along with a solid showing at the Winter
Games, could go a long way towards pushing their growth, as a team, forward another key step.
“There are things that we still need to work on, but we’re almost there,” said Labrosse, a 14 year old classmate of Branconnier’s at CND, the same
friend who first introduced him to the sport some seven years ago. “Sometimes we under-estimate ourselves, so we don’t play as good as we can. If we have
more confidence, we can do a lot better.”
Still, it is coming. A fairly natural leader by nature, also a co-captain of his soccer team, Branconnier has noted a shift in his level of belief in
the abilities of the three teammates that he guides on the ice. “Two years ago, we weren’t as comfortable as a team, so I wouldn’t call the most difficult
shots, even though I might think it was the shot that would be most profitable,” he said.
“Now, if I was looking at a shot that might save us one, versus a shot that might get us three, but that second shot is a lot more difficult, I am much
more confident calling that shot.” In fact, several areas of their games have improved, from top to bottom of the lineup. “There’s been a big improvement
in my sweeping,” said McVittie, adding that his spot in the order was in part determined by the fact that he is likely most adept at helping to bring the
rocks those crucial extra few feet in the rings.
“I have a much better stance, I’m able to get more weight on the broom, my strokes are getting wider,” he said. “I’m not just covering an inch or two
anymore, I’m getting across the eight inches I need.”
Chatting with the boys following their high school games this past week, it’s clear that is a definite appreciation for the benefits of their OWG
participation. “The Winter Games was one of our goals going in,” said Leonard. “We only probably get to go to this once, as a team, because we’ll all be
aging out by the time it comes around next.”
With that in mind, they simply hope to make the best of this chance. “Consistency is key,” acknowledged Branconnier. “We can make some really great
shots, but then we forget the weight on the next one and end up where we wouldn’t want to be, putting ourselves in a worse position.”
That said, there are much worse positions that young curling teams could be in, come March, than participating in the 2018 Ontario Winter Games. Team
Branconnier fully realizes that.