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British Columbia hands Alberta its first loss at Brier

The worst is over for Jeff Richard and Co., and on Monday morning, they managed to beat one of the best at the 2010 Tim Hortons Brier, presented by Monsanto.

The British Columbia team from Kelowna, skipped by Richard, was faced with arguably the most difficult schedule of any team to begin this year’s Canadian men’s curling championship — with a draw that included Manitoba, Ontario and Alberta, three of the four pre-tournament favourites, in the first six draws.

And during that sixth draw Monday morning at the Halifax Metro Centre, Team B.C. knocked Alberta, skipped by Kevin Koe, from the ranks of the undefeated thanks to a 7-5 victory.

B.C. boosts its record to 2-2, while Alberta falls to 3-1. In Monday morning’s other action, Newfoundland (3-1), skipped by 2006 Olympic gold medallist Brad Gushue, won its third game by pounding host Nova Scotia (0-4) by a 10-3 score.

Ontario (3-0) is now the only perfect squad at the 2010 Brier, and next faces New Brunswick (2-2) during Monday’s afternoon draw.

“We’ve had an incredibly tough schedule,” noted Richard, whose Kelowna Curling Club squad includes third Tom Shypitka, second Tyler Orme, and lead Chris Anderson. “We set a goal at the start of the week — if we’re 2-2 after our first four games, we’re extremely happy. And that’s where we are now.

“To get into the playoffs, you have to beat at least one of the top four favourites, and maybe two of them. We’ve still got one left with Gushue later on,” added Richard, whose club also played the other tourney faves extremely tough, losing 8-7 in 11 ends to Jeff Stoughton’s Manitoba outfit and 7-6 to Glenn Howard’s Ontarians.

“We play ’em tough. We always keep games fairly close,” said Richard, a former national junior runner-up. “We play all 10 ends in our games, or 11. We don’t try to end games early, or gamble to score big ends. We use the hammer to our advantage, and hopefully have it at the end of the game.”

Between Koe and Kevin Martin, Alberta had won 29 straight games at the Brier through two years and change.

Monday morning’s clash hinged on the British Columbians’ pivotal deuce in the ninth end. Richard made a critical hit-and-roll with his final stone, moving two yellow Alberta stones just enough to score two and take a 7-5 advantage heading home without hammer.  The margin between one point and two was so close that officials took three measurements before finally determining that the Left Coasters also had second shot rock.

“They went around three times. Just enough, I guess . . . and we’ll take it. That was definitely a huge two points,” said Richard. “If we get one, that changes the whole strategy. Then, we’d be looking to hopefully force them to one and go to an extra (end).”

In the 10th, B.C. kept peeling off Alberta guards, and the game ended on a double-takeout on Richard’s last rock.

Koe, who never led all morning, had drawn to the four-foot for two in the fifth end for his final score of more than a single, tying the game 4-4.

“He made a really nice shot to get his two” in the ninth, said Koe, whose Edmonton-based Saville Sports Centre quartet includes third Blake MacDonald, second Carter Rycroft, and lead Nolan Thiessen. “It tapped mine an inch too far, or else we steal one for sure. That’s kind of the way the whole game went.”

The Newfoundland and Nova Scotia rinks shook hands after the seventh end, which saw Gushue’s team steal three after Bluenose skip Ian Fitzner-LeBlanc missed a hit-and-stick attempt.

In the sixth, the Newfs had also pickpocketed a point to make it 7-3. Fitzner-LeBlanc tried a double kill, but couldn’t move one Newfoundland yellow stone far enough out of the four-foot ring.

“I don’t know if we necessarily rebounded well” from a 7-6 loss to Alberta on Sunday night,” said Gushue, whose Bally Haly Golf and Curling Club quartet includes third Mark Nichols, second Ryan Fry, and lead Jamie Korab. “We’re still struggling a little bit with draw weight, but we made some good, timely shots. I thought Ian and his team struggled a little bit with the ice, and we were able to capitalize on a few opportunities and get out to a two- or three-point lead. After the fourth end, we started putting a little more pressure on his last rocks and left him with some really tough ones.

“(Sunday) night, I left myself some tougher shots. I think if we leave ourselves some easier shots, we’ll be OK,” added Gushue. “(Sunday) night, you make 75, 80, 85 per cent of your shots, and if they’re all tough, you’re going to be in a bad position when you miss that 15 or 20 per cent.”

Fitzner-LeBlanc delivered under pressure in the fourth end, drawing behind cover to the button and tapping back a Newfoundland rock for two points, making it 4-3 for the Rock.  One end later, though, Gushue made a hit-and-stick for an easy deuce and a 6-3 advantage, never looking back.

“I certainly haven’t figured (the ice) out, and unfortunately that’s probably the inexperience biting me that everyone’s been warning me about,” said Fitzner-LeBlanc, whose Mayflower Curling Club rink from Halifax includes Brier veteran Stuart MacLean at third, Kent Smith at second and Phil Crowell at lead.

“I seem to be behind the eight-ball. The guys are throwing it well, and I’m unfortunately not reading it well,” added Fitzner-LeBlanc, who added the lack of experience on arena ice is causing his team troubles.

“That’s a huge disadvantage,” he said. “Being in Atlantic Canada, there’s no arena ‘spiels, no options unless you want to travel out West. And unfortunately, with full-time jobs, that’s tough to do. But it’s a great experience nonetheless. It’s great to be able to get on this Brier ice now and see what it’s all about.”

Monday afternoon’s draw, slated to begin at 3 p.m. AT, also features Northern Ontario (2-2) vs. Saskatchewan (2-1), Yukon/NWT (0-4) vs. Prince Edward Island (0-3), and Manitoba (3-1) vs. Quebec (2-1).