GRIMSBY, Ont. - After two years spent chasing his Olympic dreams as second for the Wayne Middaugh rink, John Epping decided it was time to return to skipping.
Because the Middaugh rink had Manitoba native Jon Mead playing third, it wasn't eligible for the Ontario championship.
"I knew after that that I wanted to go the Brier and the only way to do that was have an Ontario team," Epping, a medical sales consultant, said.
The former Canadian junior and mixed champion missed playing in the provincial championship.
"The Olympic trials was the total goal the last year, but not going to the provincials was tough," the Peterborough native said. "Watching it on TV, you think you really should be there. Watching Glenn (Howard) continuously win year after year, we believed we could be there with him and challenge him for the Ontario spot." Epping took Middaugh's lead, Scott Bailey, with him to play third.
"I knew he would be a good fit for me at third," Epping said. "I knew he was a good all-round player, even though he has been a career lead for 15 years."
He added Darryl Prebble at second and Middaugh fifth-man Trevor Wall at lead.
But things didn't go well early.
"We actually knew it wasn't going to be great at the start," Epping said. "I hadn't skipped in a few years, Scotty has never played third and Darryl has never played second. We took a beating, but we played so much and by October we found our groove."
The Donalda Curling Club rink went 7-0 in playdowns to earn a spot in this week's Ontario men's curling championship in Grimsby. It's Epping's first appearance at the provincials since 2008, when he placed third throwing skip rocks and playing vice for Mike Harris.
In Friday's 2 p.m. draw, the Epping rink eked out an 8-7 extra-end win over the Mark Kean rink from the Annandale Country Club to improve to 6-3 and guarantee itself a spot in a tiebreaker.
"We struggled this week," Epping said. "I know we're 6-3 and we're in the playoff hunt, but we're definitely not at our best yet. We're a little off, playing a couple of bad ends and a couple of bad shots here and there."
That inconsistency showed in the 10th end against Kean where a couple of missed shots allowed Kean to score three and send the game to an extra end.
Epping is receiving plenty of support this week from his parents, Ruth and Bill. His father is a former goalie with the OHL's Peterborough Petes, but it was his mother who introduced him to curling when he was seven.
"He was a great hockey player and mom was a good curler, but she won out obviously," Epping said.
"The two of them have been watching rocks for us. They mark down all the rocks all week so we know what pairs we need to throw on each sheet. We don't really know because it has been a while since we've been here."
The Epping rink was scheduled to conclude the round-robin Friday night with a game against Howard.
"We have to be at our best. If there's ever a time to get it going, it's now," Epping said.
Friday 2 p.m. draw: John Epping 8 Mark Kean 7; Peter Corner 8 Nick Rizzo 6; Greg Balsdon 9 Jake Higgs 4; Chris Gardner 8 Howard Rajala 6; Mark Bice 8 Dale Matchett 7.
Standings: Glen Howard 8-1; Balsdon 7-2; Corner 7-2; Epping 6-3; Bice 5-4; Gardner 5-5; Matchett 4-5; Kean 3-6; Rajala 2-7; Rizzo 2-7; Higgs 1-8.