By Martin Cleary
Welcome to Ava Acres’ rollercoaster curling season.
A first-year skip of the RCMP Curling Club’s women’s U18 rink that she inherited from her sister Emma, the Winchester, ON., resident has experienced plenty of highs and lows of winning and learning this season.
And there’s more to come next week for the Grade 10 North Dundas District High School honours student at the Canada Winter Games in Prince Edward Island.
Let’s go back to the start, when Acres was playing third during the 2021-22 season for her sister/skip at the Ontario and Canadian U18 championships. While Acres was focusing on those two majors (winning provincials and placing 10th at nationals), she also was looking into her future as the team’s next skip.
Aila Thompson of Manotick was asked to join the team last year as the alternate. While she was ineligible to play in provincials because she had competed in the Ontario qualifying round and also didn’t see action in nationals, she used the two experiences to see if she liked being part of a new team. All went well.
In mid-December, the Acres rink went undefeated (6-0) in pool and playoff matches to win the Ontario trials in Guelph and represent the province at the Canada Winter Games, which start Saturday and run through March 5.
The Ontario U18 championships were up next and the Acres rink of third Thompson, second Liana Flanagan of Embrun, ON., Mya Sharpe of Spencerville, ON., and coach Gord Butler had two opportunities to qualify for one of Ontario’s two berths to the Canadian championships, which were staged last week in Timmins, ON.
Nerves, fatigue and disappointment got in their way as the Acres rink lost the A and B finals. Instead of returning to the Canadian U18 championship and a second national tournament this season, the Acres rink absorbed provincials as a learning experience.
But on the first weekend of February, Team Acres regained its confidence, posting a 5-1 record during the Ontario Winter Games and winning the final 10-8 over Amanda Smith of Dundas Valley.
As the RCMP curlers settle their stomachs from their exciting or excruciating rollercoaster rides over the past two months, the Canada Games have come into view.
Women’s curling at the Games is scheduled for Sunday through Feb. 24. Acres will lead Ontario against British Columbia, Newfoundland/Labrador, Northwest Territories, Quebec and Saskatchewan in preliminary pool matches. The playoffs are Feb. 23-24.
“I didn’t realize how big the Canada Winter Games was until we had presentations from the mission staff,” Acres said in a recent phone interview. “We’re all super excited and excited to go to P.E.I.
“Our main goal is to have a podium finish. We know how well we have been playing. If we play like we have this season, we have a good chance. But I expect there to be a strong group of curlers.”
When the Acres team wasn’t curling in various championships over the past two months, it has been practising “to improve and keep our performances sharp,” noted Acres. Butler also has provided sound advice to improve the players’ games.
“Practising a lot has helped,” she explained. “We have a very good bond between us and it has given us an edge. We’re best friends. We’re not winning for ourselves, but for the team. We want to win for each other.”
Butler spent a lot of time early in the season working on the players’ technical skills. Acres also spent time becoming familiar with her role as skip and team leader.
“We knew Emma was aging out (now a U21 curler) and I decided I wanted to move to skip,” Acres said. “I asked Aila if she was interested in joining the team and she said she was interested.
“I was a little nervous going in (as skip). The last time I was a skip was in Little Rocks (entry level) and I hadn’t practised at that position since. I knew I would be a good skip, but I had to work on it. My new coach has helped me ease into it.”
Acres also has learned a lot about being a skip and making the pressure shots in conversations with and watching her sister Emma.
“I’ve played on the same team (as her) for as long as I have curled and that has helped,” Acres continued. “We have the same ideas for shots. We are alike and think the same. I’ve learned from her just being on the team. I’ve learned everything I know just from her.
“We talk curling a lot. If we’re watching a game, we agree on what shots to take and discuss it. She still helps me.”
At the Ontario trials for the Canada Winter Games, Acres defeated Huntley Curling Club’s Katrina Frlan 6-4 by rallying from a 4-2 deficit after five ends and scoring four over the last three ends.
Acres staged another late rally in the Ontario U18 championship women’s A final, combining for five points in the sixth and seventh ends to even the match at 8-8. But Frlan used the hammer to score one in the eighth end for a 9-8 victory and the provincial title.
In the B final to determine the Ontario No. 2 rink at nationals, Acres led 4-2 after six ends, but Ottawa Hunt’s Emilie Padbury scored four in the seventh to move ahead 6-4. Acres countered with two in the eighth to force an extra end at 6-6. But Padbury used the hammer for two points in the ninth for an 8-6 win and a trip to nationals.
“In the A final, nerves got the better of us and having the extra pressure,” Acres recalled. “In the B final, we were tired and disappointed from losing the A final. It was our third game of the day and fatigue influenced our missed shots.
“We definitely learned not to let the pressure get to us. We had huge targets on our backs (as defending Ontario U18 champions). We put pressure on ourselves to win. That messed up our minds and didn’t allow us to play our best.”
But a victory at the Ontario Games nine days ago has put the Acres rink in a better frame of mind entering the Canada Games. Acres raced into a 5-1 advantage after two ends against the Smith rink, but needed to score three in the seventh end and two in the eighth for a 10-8 victory.
“It has definitely restored our confidence,” Acres added. “We were upset about losing at provincials. We had won last year and we wanted to win again. But we did have a good chance. Definitely winning the Ontario Winter Games has helped build our confidence for the Canada Winter Games.”
The Canada Winter Games female curling competition runs from Feb. 19-24 at The Silver Fox Entertainment Complex in Summerside, PEI. Consult the full schedule here.
Visit our Ottawa at the Canada Winter Games central webpage for more coverage on our local athletes’ journeys to the PEI 2023 Games.
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Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.
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