Last February, Mackenzie Zacharias and her rink from the Altona Curling Club in Manitoba stood atop the podium in Krasnoyarsk, Russia as world junior champions.
Less than 12 months later, after one of the most unbelievable years in quite some time, Team Zacharias is going to its first career Scotties Tournament of Hearts inside the Calgary curling bubble.
Not many 21-year-old skips can stake that claim, especially ones who play out of the curling powerhouse of Manitoba.
"We could not have seen this coming a year ago. Once we get to the Scotties it will be about a year since we won the world juniors,” Zacharias told TSN.ca. “We just didn't see this coming at all, and we're just so thrilled with the opportunity to get to go this year."
Curling Canada expanded the field at this year’s Canadian championships to 18 teams as many provinces were unable to run playdowns due to COVID-19. The field includes three wild-card teams determined by the Canadian Team Ranking System.
Zacharias will be the second wild-card team thanks to her No. 11 ranking. Right behind her at No. 12 is Beth Peterson, who will skip the third wild-card team in Calgary. Both are in Pool A for the preliminary round.
Team Peterson also marks the fifth rink from Manitoba at this year’s championship. Team Kerri Einarson of Gimli will represent Canada as the defending champions, while Winnipeg’s Team Jennifer Jones will wear the Buffalo. East St. Paul’s Team Tracey Fleury will be there too as the first wild-card rink but will be skipped by Chelsea Carey.
"I don't think either of us thought this [getting to the Scotties] was going to happen for a number of years because there are so many great teams here [in Manitoba],” said Zacharias. “So, to get this opportunity, we're definitely going to get out there and try to make the most of it.
“We haven't had a ton of practice going into this event, which is a little bit nerve-racking for us, but we're very excited to go out there and show all those absolutely wonderful teams what we can do and hopefully we can give them a couple real good games."
When Manitoba was forced to cancel its provincial championships in December, Team Peterson had set its sights on the 2021-22 campaign, believing the season was done. Once the new format was revealed, Peterson knew they could be in the mix. On Monday it was official.
"I don't know if it will sink in until we get there," Peterson told TSN.ca in an interview.
The 26-year-old skip and her squad of third Jenna Loder, second Katherine Doerksen, lead Melissa Gordon and alternate Cathy Overton-Clapham are ready to prove they belong with the likes of Rachel Homan, Jones and Einarson.
“I know that there has been some speculation about who should have gone [as a wild-card team], and I understand all those hard decisions that needed to be made by Curling Canada,” explained Peterson, who will make her Scotties debut inside the bubble. “So, we just want to make sure people know that we do deserve to be there.”
At the very least, expect to be entertained when Peterson is on television.
“Lots of people haven't seen me on TV, but those that have seen me in person known I'm a pretty intense person,” said Peterson. “I'll definitely give TV what they want with some of my facial expressions and my loud yelling."
Zacharias and her team of third Karlee Burgess, second (and sister) Emily Zacharias, lead Lauren Lenentine and alternate Rachel Erickson are coming off a surreal 2019-20 season, their first as a foursome.
Burgess, now a three-time world junior champion, is from Nova Scotia, while Lenentine, a two-time champ, is from Prince Edward Island. Both East Coasters were looking for a new team after their former skip, Kaitlyn Jones, aged out of junior curling following the 2019 Canadian juniors in Prince Albert., Sask. It just so happened that the Zacharias sisters needed somebody to play with.
“They were looking for something new,” said Zacharias. “So, they reached out to Emily and I and were like, ‘Let’s put this team together and try to win a world championship.,’ That was the goal.”
Burgess and Lenentine moved to Manitoba and things clicked for Team Zacharias right from the start, both off and on the ice.
After going 11-0 at the 2020 Canadian juniors, they continued their stellar play at the world junior championships a few weeks later to capture gold. One of the highlights of the season was Zacharias’ incredible in-off takeout to score three against the Russians in the semifinals.
"That's probably one of my favourite shots I've ever had,” Zacharias said. “It came just at the right time to keep us in that game against Russia. I think we were down 4-1. It's definitely not one that I'm ever going to forget. A moment that I'll never forget and just absolutely thrilled it happened when it did because it kept us in the game."
The Zacharias sisters and Lenentine are now roommates in Winnipeg and have spent plenty of time together during the pandemic.
"We just really enjoyed playing together, had a lot of success last season, and we were like, ‘Hey, why not keep it going? Why not see where this could take us into 2020 and 2021?’ Now here we are and we're going to the Scotties," said Zacharias.
Team Peterson’s lineup has some history as well. Peterson has played with her lead since they were young kids and joined forces with Loder and Doerksen three years ago. They ramped up their tour schedule last season, highlighted by a semifinal appearance at the Tour Challenge Tier 2 on the Grand Slam circuit.
“We're just such a tight foursome,” she said.
Zacharias and Peterson have already played each other three times this season, with the world junior champ taking two of those matches.
Prepping for the bubble
By mid-November curling was shut down across much of the country due to the second wave of the pandemic and hasn’t started back up. Most teams will arrive to the bubble not having thrown a competitive rock in months.
Peterson, who was able to play in two events in October, says most teams will be in the same boat. At least to start off.
"Nobody is at their best or their most comfortable with the ice because nobody has been curling,” she said.
Team Zacharias managed to get into a couple bonspiels back in October as well and found success, making the finals both times and winning one.
"We were playing with a lot of confidence and we were getting into a really good groove by the end of that, so hopefully we can pick up where we left off and see where that takes us at the Scotties," said Zacharias.
Shaking off the rust will only be one of the hurdles curlers will have to manage at this year’s Scotties. Another is following the health and safety protocols. Players will only be allowed to stay in their hotel room when not competing.
"I live for the life where you can just eat, sleep and curl, and I missed that this year. I'm excited to do that for nearly two weeks," said Peterson.
Peterson works as a radiation therapist at CancerCare Manitoba and is full supportive of the protocols put in place by Curling Canada.
"They are doing everything that needs to be done for this bubble and as somebody who works in health care, I see the implications of COVID. I feel safe going and I think they're doing a real good job to make us all feel safe," said Peterson.
Zacharias is a fourth-year Kinesiology student and plans on doing some schoolwork in her down time inside the bubble.
"We'll have our books with us and our laptops. We'll still be attending our online lectures. It's kind of convenient we can take that with us this year…But first and foremost we'll be focusing on curling and doing the best we can," said Zacharias.
The opening draw of the 2021 Scotties goes Feb. 19 with Team Zacharias taking on the defending champion Team Einarson in an all-Manitoba battle.