Heath McCormick won't have to go far to play in the Ontario men's curling championship. He just took the long road to get there.
McCormick and his Sarnia Golf and Curling Club rink of Jason Young, Shaun Harris and Mark Bice won the West Challenge Round Monday at St. Catharines to qualify for the 10-rink TSC Tankard, Feb. 12-18 at the Sarnia Sports and Entertainment Centre.
At stake is a spot in the Tim Hortons Brier, March 3-11 at Copps Coliseum in Hamilton.
"We're excited, obviously," McCormick, 30, said yesterday. "This was definitely one of our goals at the start of the season. It is every season, but given that it's in our hometown this year makes it a little more special. A lot of players from our clubs will get a chance to see what we can do and the fan support can only help."
This is McCormick's second provincials as a skip, the other coming in in 2002, and his fourth overall.
"You make it to your first one and you think you're going to make it every year and it just doesn't happen that way," he said. "We played well this weekend and we've just got to keep it going. I like our chances at making the playoffs."
With defending champion Glenn Howard of Coldwater and former champions Wayne Middaugh of Toronto St. George's and Bryan Cochrane of Ottawa RCMP also in the field, that confidence will be tested.
"For sure, Howard and Middaugh are the favourites, but we're not afraid to play them as we've played them before. Undoubtedly there are going to be some games that come down to the last shot and we're going to need to get the breaks, but you've just got to be able to put yourself in the position to win."
Jim Lyle of St. Thomas and Bob Stafford of Chatham Granite, who both played in last week's Ontario senior championship (Stafford losing to Bob Turcotte of Scarborough in an extra end in the final), round out the local flavour.
"Sarnia's going to be pretty happy with that field," said Lyle, who missed the senior playoffs by a game. "We'll probably play it a little less aggressive to start out with and see how it goes. We haven't been on arena ice for a while and that's a whole different ball game.
"We'd be silly to go there with huge expectations of winning it, but we're going to give it our all. Kevin (third Breivik) and Ted (lead Smith) have been there a lot of times, so that should help."
With Howard sitting No. 2 in the WCT money list at $104,661 and ranked third in the world, the Coldwater skip is the obvious choice for favourite in Sarnia.
"Whether I like that or not is neither here nor there because I can't control that," he said yesterday from Midland. "And as far as pressure goes, we put a lot of that on ourselves."
Playing the likes of Randy Ferbey and Kevin Martin on the tour every week certainly doesn't hurt.
"If you play the better teams, you're going to get better yourself," Howard said. "You get into a comfort zone. But at the same time you have to make sure not to take anyone lightly and we're pretty good that way as we know it's a fickle game."
Howard lost last year's Brier final to Jean-Michel Menard of Quebec, which is probably the worst possible news for the other nine rinks in Sarnia.
The other two times he lost a Brier final (playing third for brother Russ) were in 1986 and 1992. He was a world champion in 1987 and 1993.
When: Feb. 12-18
Where: Sarnia Sports and Entertainment Centre
Teams: Jim Lyle (St. Thomas), Bob Stafford (Chatham), Heath McCormick (Sarnia), Glenn Howard (Coldwater), Wayne Middaugh (Toronto St. George's), Bryan Cochrane (Ottawa RCMP), Wayne Warren (Cannington), Damien Villard (Renfrew), Greg Balsdon (Guelph), John Epping (Omemee).
Draw times: Feb. 12, 14 and 15, 1 and 7 p.m.; Feb. 13, 2 and 7 p.m.; Feb. 16, 1 p.m.; playoff times TBA.
Tickets: From Sarnia SEC, 519-541-1717 or 1-877-541-1717, or online at www.tsc-tankard.com