One thing Scott McDonald would love to find under the tree tomorrow morning would be a ticket to Thunder Bay.
But Santa's not going to play favourites when it comes to a trip to the Canadian junior men's curling championship Jan. 21-29, so McDonald and his Highland rink of Micky Lizmore, Brodie Tarvit and Mike McDonald will have to do it the old-fashioned way.
Odds are they will.
Semifinalists last season, they carry the favourites' tag heading into the Ontario championship Jan. 4-8 at the Tam Heather Curling and Tennis Club in Toronto.
"We're pretty happy with the pressure," McDonald said yesterday. "We've had a lot of games playing against the men's teams at our club and we haven't lost to an Ontario junior team since the end of October. But that's not a big deal -- we've just played the London cashspiel, zones and regionals since then."
The provincial final is an eight-rink round-robin, a change from the double-knockout formats used at the two previous levels. That means two losses won't prove fatal.
"Yes, but I don't want to think about having two losses," McDonald said. "That's a last-resort sort of thing.
"We'll just have to have the mental toughness, have that drive, for the entire week. You've only got so many shots at junior and even though we can all come back next year, if we don't win it this time, there'll be so much pressure next year and who knows what will happen."
The provincial field is a good one, with Codey Maus -- third last year for champion Mark Bice of Sarnia -- skipping his own entry this time out of Dixie. McDonald and Maus are first and third, respectively, in the Ontario Junior Curling Tour points standings.
"We have a strategy to play him," McDonald said. "We came out firing on all cylinders the two times we've played him this year and ended it early both times (including the London final)."
The teams meet in the seventh and final round-robin draw, with McDonald getting the predetermined hammer.
Mark Kean and his Woodstock rink of Andrew Inouye, Chadd VanDerMade and Punit Sthankiya -- fourth in the OJCT standings -- are also competing. Mark's grandfather Verne played in seven OCA championships.
The other entries are Patrick Russell of Toronto St. George's, Mike Anderson of Guelph, Chris Gardner of Carleton Heights, James Sills of Kingston Cataraqui and Ryan Myler of Brampton.
On the women's side, Leanne Elston and her Wingham rink of Emily Elston, Brittany Horton and Kayla Bishop carry the London area's hopes.
They'll be joined by Leslie McCormack of North Halton, Jenna Long of Brampton, Laura Payne of Prescott, Brittani O'Neil of Hamilton Glendale, Laura Hockey of Avonlea, Jenna Harrington of Brockville and Lisa Farnell of Peterborough.
Busy New Year
The first weekend of January also sees regional playdowns for the Scott Tournament of Hearts as the race to London resumes in earnest.
Regions 3 and 4 (Zones 9-12 and 13-16) will compete as one group at St. Thomas, starting Jan. 6. The A and B winners advance to the Ontario Scott Tournament of Hearts Jan. 30-Feb. 4 in Fort Frances. Among the entries are three-time Ontario champion Sherry Middaugh of Coldwater, two-time champion Marilyn Bodogh of St. Catharines, Jo-Ann Rizzo of Brant, Chrissy Cadorin of Guelph, Amie Coward of Ilderton and Listowel rinks skipped by Becky Philpott and Elaine Voisin.
Regions 1 and 2 play at Royal Kingston, with defending Ontario champ and Canadian runner-up Jenn Hanna of Ottawa CC among the competitors, joined by the likes of four-time champion Anne Merklinger of Ottawa Rideau.
Nationals are at the John Labatt Centre, starting nine weeks from today.
The men's Kia Cup regionals are also set for the same weekend, with Zone 4 set for St. Catharines. Three-time Ontario runner-up Phil Daniel of Kingsville and Mike McLean of Sarnia are among the entries.
Around the house
Jim Lyle of St. Thomas, who lost in the semifinals in 2004, is back for another crack at the Ontario senior men's championship Jan. 18-22 at Brantford Golf and Curling Club. Bob Turcott of Scarborough, who beat Lyle in that semifinal in an extra end to win his fourth senior crown, is also back . . . The Ontario senior women's finals will be played along with the senior men, with Jane Galloway of Ilderton among the entries.