Last February, Brady Clark and his teammates headed to the 2016 USA Curling Nationals in Jacksonville, Fla., with great confidence. They were certain a men’s championship was possible, if not likely.
And so it turned out as the foursome led by Clark — he was the team’s skip, or captain — breezed to the title. It was the second men’s national championship in four years for the 39-year-old Clark, who lives in Lynnwood.
“It’s a great feeling to win a men’s championship,” Clark said. “The only thing that’s a higher prize in the game would be getting a medal at the world championships or making it to the Olympics. But beyond that, there’s no greater prize than winning at nationals.”
Over the next eight days, Team Clark will be trying for a repeat title at the 2017 USA Curling Nationals in Everett’s Xfinity Arena. Nine other men’s teams and a total of eight women’s teams, including some with former United States Olympians, comprise the field for this annual showdown of the nation’s top curlers.
“Winning back-to-back (titles) is challenging,” Clark said. “Definitely there’s a target on your back. But I don’t mind that. I kind of like it.
“I try not to remember what happened the previous year,” he added. “All that matters is what’s in front of you. … If you put in the time and the preparation, if you have your mindset in the right place, and if you’re able to peak at the right time, then hopefully good things happen.”
Clark’s team, which returns intact from a year ago, is the closest thing to a hometown favorite in this year’s tournament. In addition to Clark, the sole resident of Snohomish County in the men’s field, 39-year-old Phil Tilker is from Seattle, while Colin Hufman, 32, lived in Seattle until last summer before moving to Minneapolis. The lone team member without Seattle-area ties is Greg Persinger, 32, of Fairbanks, Alaska.
The team’s coach, Ken Trask, also lives in Seattle.
“With the event being in Everett, I think we’ll have a lot of hometown support,” Clark said. “I think we’ll have a lot of people cheering us on and that’ll be a lot of fun.”
The tournament format begins with six days of round-robin play. One match to highlight will be at 7 p.m. Wednesday when the Clark quartet takes on a team led by John Shuster of Superior, Wisconsin, a three-time U.S. Olympian. At last year’s nationals, Team Clark beat Team Shuster three times, including a 10-4 thumping in the championship match, which should raise the stakes for this year’s clash.
At the completion of round-robin play, the top four men’s and women’s teams advance to the playoff round, with tiebreakers scheduled for Thursday night and Friday morning if necessary. The semifinals are Friday night and the finals are Saturday.
Given the duration of a national championship tournament — the men’s teams play nine games in the round-robin portion alone, the women seven — factors such as mental stamina, confidence and momentum become very important.
“You want to be playing your best when it comes to the end of the week,” Clark said. “You go through highs and lows … and it comes down to preparation throughout the season. When you come into the championship, you just have to figure out how to achieve your peak performance.”
“Curling is an interesting game,” Trask said. “It takes four people that really get along well, on and off the ice. A lot of teams, you can see them implode on the ice and when that happens, their performance typically goes down. But when the individuals are doing their best, obviously the team is (more successful).”
How likely is it that Clark’s team can win a repeat national championship?
“If they play their best, they’ll be in the (playoff round),” Trask said. “And when you get in those games, it’s whoever is playing the best at that time. But clearly they have the ability, the skill-set and the mindset to compete at the very highest level. I’d say there’s probably four teams that could win this event, and (Clark’s team) is definitely one of them.”
“Who wins is pretty much a matter of who plays well this upcoming week,” agreed Tilker, who also teamed with Clark for a national title in 2013. “It’s going to be just as hard to win as it was last year … but there’s no reason why we can’t win nationals again. I don’t think anyone else has a better chance of winning than we do.”
As for Clark, he said his team “has prepared really well this year and I like our chances. We know all these teams … and I feel like we’re one of the top four.
“I’m not saying we’re absolutely going to win,” he said, “but I think we have as good or better a shot than any other team in the championship. I’d like to think we have at least a one-in-four chance (of winning), and possibly better than that.”