Six years ago I took the first team of English girls to play in an International Competition to the European Junior Challenge in Copenhagen. Since the opening of Fenton's Rink in 2004 there had been a steady flow of junior curlers and now we had found a team to go out and challenge the World - well the rest of Europe initially!
Here are the girls at Fenton's before they set off:
Left to right - Anna Fowler (skip), Sophie Hickling (3rd), Kate McKenzie (2nd), Naomi Robinson (lead / alternate), Hetty Garnier (lead / alternate)
And we had our supporting entourage as well - yours truly, Vicky McKenzie, Jules Fowler and Felicity Robinson all ready to wave the flags for England.
It was a small field that year - just 11 countries - and so the girls teams were split into 2 groups - we were in a group of 5 along with France, Germany, Finland and Slovakia - a tough task for our inexperienced team but they got off to the best possible start when they defeated Slovakia by 9-1! The Slovakians had played in a previous year and so had some experience at this level and so for Anna and her team this was an unbelieveable start and spirits rose. One interesting thing about the Slovakian team was that at least 3 of them were deaf and they used various hand signals for sweeping calls.
After a session off it was Finland next and reality struck hard - we were 7-0 down after 2 ends and eventually lost 11-2 after 7. Next it was France and 9-0 down after 2 ends led to a 16-3 defeat. Finally Germany and a 12-0 defeat after 6!! So a chastening end to a week that started off well but lessons were learnt and thoughts turned to Prague a year later.
One thing that was required was a coach and we found one in the form of Ian Baxter, who was living down South and playing at Fenton's - Scottish Junior Champion in 1990 with Graeme Connal he went to Prague with a revised team. Sophie and Kate were gone and replaced by Lauren Pearce and Madeline Tuz, 2 more graduates from the Fenton's junior programme. Hetty had moved to third and Naomi to second.
Hopes were high that progress would be made in a 10 team competition that meant 9 round-robin games before the play-offs - a tough schedule. By the end of the week though all dreams had been shattered when the team failed to register a win - Finland (3-7), Slovakia (4-8), Denmark (0-12), Italy (5-6), Spain (7-8), Norway (4-9), Germany (5-6), Estonia (4-6) and Poland (3-7). There were some close games in there though - the Spanish loss was at an extra end - but still some first end nightmares ( losing a 6 v Norway for example).
Ian Baxter was unable to commit to another year and so we approached Greg Dunn, a Canadian who was playing at Fenton's and had experience of coaching / junior curling at home. Another Canadian recruit was a young girl, just 15 years old, who had been brought up in British Columbia and had taken up curling and been to various camps etc. over there. Her father is English and so when she appeared at Fenton's, having moved to a village just 15 minutes away, she was eligible to represent England without any wait to achieve residency qualifications. Her name was Angharad Ward and she was immediately drafted into the team in place of Madeline Tuz.
It was back to Prague in 2011 and the new coach made his mark by getting the whole team (and the boys team) to do some runs around the rink as a penalty for being late for a meeting! I accompanied them on this occasion and we began to see that week the beginnings of the progress which had been absent the previous year. Another tough week with 8 games to be played in the round-robin and things did not start well - 2-6 v Spain and 1-10 v Italy, but then a win - against Slovakia by 8-3 and hopes rose. A loss against the top team Germany was followed by a second victor, against Estonia by 5-2, and then another one - 4-2 v Poland. Finally two more defeats - 3-5 v Norway and 0-6 v Denmark. So 3 wins and 5 losses and still not troubling the top teams - but the team were starting to understand the nuances of the game and to get the experience of International competition.
Copenhagen called in 2012 and Greg needed some help and up stepped Kerr Alexander - nominally to coach the boys' team but also assisting Greg with the girls. Angharad was unable to play this year as she was involved in the Winter Youth Olympics for the GB team and was needed for pre-Games practice and so Lucy Sparks came in as alternate. This was also Anna's last year and she meant to go out on a high.
Left to right - Greg Dunn Lucy Sparks, Lauren Pearce, Naomi Robinson, Hetty Garnier and Anna Fowler. Compare to the previous picture!!!
Nine teams again and another 8 game round-robin. Wins were recorded against Denmark (5-2), Slovakia (6-2), Hungary (9-4), Spain (6-3), Poland (6-5) and Germany (8-6) and there were two defeats by Italy (3-5 after extra end) and Estonia (3-8). However this meant that England finished second in the round-robin and would play a semi-final against Denmark. This was a very low-scoring game with neither side willing to gamble but eventually Denmark won by 3-1though they then lost in the final to Italy who therefore went to the Worlds.
It was back to Prague in 2013 and the major change was, of course, that Anna was no longer a junior, and neither was Lauren, and so Hetty stepped up to the mark to lead the team, Angharad returned to the team at third, Naomi stayed at second, Lucy moved in at lead and Niamh Fenton was the new alternate. Neither Greg nor Kerr was able to commit the time to travel with the team and so Andrew Woolston and myself were this year’s coaches for both the girls and the boys.
There were 12 teams split into 2 groups of 6 and it started off extremely well, when following a close defeat by Hungary (3-4), there was a win over old rivals Denmark by 5-3 in a game where Hetty was marked as playing 95%. However this was followed by a 3-10 defeat by Poland although a victory over Latvia by 6-4 meant that there was still a chance of finishing in the top 2 of the group if Turkey could be beaten, but this was not to be and a 5-3 victory for Turkey left England 4th in the group when a win would actually have meant that they finished top based on the DSC which would have been needed to separate them from Denmark and Hungary. So 3 wins out of 5 – close but still not there.
It was a new venue for 2014 – Lohja in Finland and while the team stayed the same the coach changed again and Sara Jahodova was recruited. Sara is from the Czech Republic and has played for her country at the World Championship , though she currently lives in England. Her partner, Radek Bohac provided some assistance but it was a tough time for her to look after 2 teams.
Once again there were 12 teams divided into 2 groups of 6 and the English campaign got off to the worst possible start when they ran out of time in the first game against Hungary and automatically lost the game! However, the girls bounced back and won their next 4 games – Germany (4-3), Latvia (7-2), Estonia (6-4) and Finland (13-0) to finish second behind Hungary and next was a quarter-final v Norway which was won well by 8-2 but the semi-final against Italy saw a disappointing 2-9 loss. With a bronze medal at stake in their final game they won an extra end decision against Poland and those medals by 7-6. So all the time it was getting closer but time was running out a little bit – astonishingly Hetty had now played in 6 EJCC but she still had three years eligibility left, as had Angharad and Lucy, but Naomi was done to just 2 and so 2015 would be a critical year.
This year they did it.
After 6 previous attempts the England Junior Women qualified for the World Junior Championship with a fairly dominant display at the European Junior Challenge in Prague. A look at their scores emphasises how much better they were than the majority of the other teams they met, but it was the semi-final against Hungary that was a true measure of their improved quality and maturity. After wins by 14-1 against Spain, 9-1 against Slovenia and 8-1 against Slovakia there were two narrow wins against Poland (5-2) and Turkey (4-2) before a defeat by Italy (2-7) in the last round robin game when they had already guaranteed finishing top in their group.
A quarter –final win against Latvia by 7-1 was followed by their toughest game of the competition against Hungary who were runners-up last year. It was 5-2 for England after 6 ends and then Hungary scored 3 at the 7th leaving Hetty Garnier with a hit and stick to win the game in the 8th end which she did perfectly. Against Turkey in the final it was back to routine with a staggering 9-1 win in just 6 ends rounding off an incredible week and sending the girls to the World Championships in Estonia at the beginning of March.
Congratulations to Hetty Garnier, Angharad Ward, Naomi Robinson, Lucy Sparks and Niamh Fenton who were ably coached by Sara Jahodova. Unfortunately Sara cannot go to Estonia with them as coach owing to work commitments but they will be coached there by John Sharp who has worked with the majority of the team at the European Championships over the past couple of seasons.