The Great North Hope

CON GRIWKOWSKY -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 8:05 AM ET

Renee Sonnenberg feels the love every day.

She can't escape it. On the radio. In the papers. On the streets of the booming city of Grande Prairie.

The city has been hyped about the prospect of having one of their own carrying Canada's colours at this year's women's world championship.

She has become The Great North Hope as the 2006 provincials get underway today at the Shamrock.

"Wouldn't that be a thrill," said Sonnenberg. "That would just be an amazing thing. Everybody at home is sending us lots of fan mail and saying, 'Hopefully, you can be in Grande Prairie.'

"That's so far ahead, though, we don't dare start thinking that way."

Carrying fan's expectations can become a heavy burden for somebody unaccustomed to pressure.

"It is, if you think about it," said Sonnenberg. "I've learned often that thinking about results any time is like shooting yourself in the foot. We've learned that a couple of times in the last few years.

"Stay in the present moment. Worry only about the execution."

It's not like Sonnenberg is incapable of finishing the job. Her rink won the province in 1999 and 2001.

Sonnenberg has skipped at nine provincials. She's made the playoffs in seven of those years and finished runner-up three times.

But things haven't been quite the same since her long-time third Marcy Balderston had to step aside for health reasons early in the 2004 season. That was the year the team missed the provincial due to a conflict with the Canada Cup.

Sonnenberg brought in a familiar face as a replacement, her sister Nikki Smith, who lives in Calgary. The sisters grew up in Beaumont, just south of Edmonton. When Sonnenberg was looking for a second last season, she convinced former Edmonton rinkmate Twyla Bruce to join the team.

Lead Tina McDonald has played with Sonnenberg for 11 years. There's no shortage of motivation after gassing their chance for a playoff appearance with a final-round loss in 2005.

"We went into that last game playing not to lose and that's exactly what happened," said Sonneberg, a Grande Prairie teacher. "We did it to ourselves. We got back on our heels, didn't play our game and learned a valuable lesson."

Missing the playoffs was a definite shocker, especially since the team finished fourth in earnings on the women's tour, but Sonnenberg said there's a better motivator.

"It's definitely a goal to get back into the playoffs, but to be honest, we are just so looking forward to playing together," said Sonnenberg, whose team finished No. 8 on the money list this season.

"It's just sheer fun for us to play together. We don't play regularly in a league because we all live so far apart, so we can't wait to play together. All of our relationships are good. That's what makes this team fun."

It's a veteran group that has a chance to make some magic this weekend. If they do, Grande Prairie will continue going ga-ga with anticipation.


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