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Mooibroek joins Epping, Howard as favourites in deep Ontario Tankard field

Sam Mooibroek Sam Mooibroek - The Canadian Press

Glenn Howard and John Epping are usually the skips to beat at the Ontario men's curling championship.

Add another name to that list for this week's playdowns in Dorchester, Ont.

Sam Mooibroek's young Whitby, Ont.-based side has cracked the top 10 in the Canadian rankings thanks to a 46-25 record this season. The 2023 U Sports champion will skip the highest-ranked team in the field at the FlightExec Centre.

"We've played a lot and we just found a groove from there," Mooibroek said Wednesday.

His five-player team of Scott Mitchell, Nathan Steele, Colin Schnurr and Wyatt Small will open play Thursday morning at the London, Ont.-area venue.

In addition to Howard and Epping, the 12-team men's draw includes Pat Ferris, Greg Balsdon and Michael Fournier.

Mooibroek, 24, won a lower-level bonspiel in November and helped build his points total by reaching five other finals this season. He also played in the PointsBet Invitational and the Grand Slam of Curling's Tier-2 event.

"I think we qualified (for playoffs) in basically every spiel since October," Mooibroek said. "We weren't taking it too serious. Just go spend time on the road and have some fun. Winning kind of came along with that."

Mooibroek won the Curling Canada Under-25 NextGen Classic in 2022 and reached the final last year.

He missed the playoffs in his second career Ontario championship appearance last year at 3-2, falling to Epping and eventual champion Mike McEwen on the final rock in both games.

McEwen, who now curls out of Saskatchewan, went on to beat Howard in the final.

"We can compete at this level," Mooibroek said. "It's nice coming in (knowing) that if we play well we can win. You don't expect to win, you don't come in saying, 'We have to win or it's a failure.'

"But you want to give yourself a shot."

The Ontario women's playdowns - also a triple-knockout event - started Monday and will continue through Friday night. Headliners include Danielle Inglis, Hollie Duncan and Carly Howard.

The men's playoffs begin Saturday and the final is set for Sunday.

Epping, at No. 11, is just a half-point behind Mooibroek in the latest Canadian rankings. Howard is 14th, Ferris is 18th and Fournier holds the No. 20 position.

"This year has been a lot of hard work and we've spent months on the road," Mooibroek said. "It's a lot of hard work paying off."

The Ontario women's champion will represent the province at the Feb. 16-25 Scotties Tournament of Hearts in Calgary. The men's champion will wear Ontario colours at the March 1-10 Montana's Brier in Regina.

Playdowns are also underway in powerhouse provinces like Manitoba and Alberta.

The Manitoba women's field boasts the likes of Kaitlyn Lawes, Beth Peterson, Jolene Campbell and Kate Cameron. Alberta headliners include Kayla Skrlik, Selena Sturmay and Serena Gray-Withers.

Men's playdowns in Manitoba and Alberta will be held next month.

The national championships will be 18-team events. The highest-ranked men's team that doesn't win its provincial/territorial championship will get the final berth.

There are two spots available for the highest-ranked non-provincial/territorial champions in the Hearts field. The extra berth was created after Nunavut's recent withdrawal from the competition.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 24, 2024.

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