Throwing rocks at houses

The NWT junior girls curling team knows how to handle pressure: like teenagers.
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Olivia Gibbons and Katharine Thomas sweep hard for a rock thrown by NWT teammate Taryn Williams in a match against Team Nunavut.

The Northwest Territories' junior girls curling skip Janis O'Keefe leans over the pool table, eyeing angles and contemplating her next move. After a moment involving much giggling and clever digs from her teammates, her brow unfurrows itself and she gamely strikes the cue ball, grinning broadly.

She misses, spectacularly.

To the accompaniment of more laughter and a few more gentle jabs, O'Keefe pounds the table in mock frustration. If she'd been on the ice, she'd most likely have nailed the shot.

"The skills actually transfer over really well, especially the angles," said O'Keefe of Inuvik.

"Yeah, now that you know how to hit the ball," laughs teammate Taryn Williams of Yellowknife.

"She just learned this morning," Williams says by way of explanation.

Yellowknife's O'Keefe, Williams and Katharine Thomas, along with Gibbons from Hay River, are sitting in second after round-robin play at the Arctic Winter Games. They opened the tournament with an admittedly one-sided loss to Team Yukon, but came back to win their next two games. On Thursday, they will face Team Yukon again, with the winner getting a bye into the gold-medal game.

It's a lot of pressure for a group of teenage girls, but watching them relax in Mount McIntyre's curling lounge on Wednesday afternoon, you'd never know it.

"We had a rocky start with our first game, but we came back and played as well as we could have," Williams said.

"In most tournaments we usually start out a bit rough, but then we get better," says Thomas. "Our confidence is up now. We're here to win it, and we know we can."

Still, after losing to the Yukon 12-3 in their first game of the tournament, they could be excused for being a bit rattled.

"We're not. We're going to play our game this time. Last time we ended up chasing them, and trying to take their rocks out instead of trying to put our rocks in," O'Keefe says.

O'Keefe and Williams are competing in their second Arctic Winter Games, while Gibbons and Thomas are in their first. But having competed at the Canada Winter Games already, the two rookies aren't really rookies at all.

"Olivia and I have both been to national competitions as well," Thomas said.

"Canada Games was awesome. I really liked it. It was a little intimidating because the teams were better, but I think we held our own. We learned a lot, too."

All four players have a lot of experience to draw on, and they know the importance of having a plan.

"We're going to hit above house. We're not going to go through on our draws, focus on throwing to our sweepers. Next game, it's our game," Williams said.

"We for sure going to have an ulu, so that takes a bit of the pressure off. My brother already got a silver medal in speed skating, so we need to beat him," said Thomas.

The girls have all been playing together for, well, a number of years and in many ways are more like sisters than teammates.

"We've been playing together for three years," said Williams.

"No, isn't it four," Thomas interjects.

There is more laughter and rousing debate about who met whom when and how many games they've played as a team.

"OK, it's been three years," Williams finally said with as much authority and suppressed mirth as she can muster. "But Janis and I have been playing together since we were ..."

"... Since we started, when we were what, 11?" O'Keefe finishes her teammate's sentence.

The girls are hanging out in the curling centre lounge not for the pool, but because they'd hoped to watch the Tim Hortons Brier. Unfortunately it was broadcast on a channel the centre doesn't have, so the girls make do with pool cues and billiard balls instead.

"It's always fun to watch the Brier, especially because we know everyone. We get to play against them in league, and then we see them on TV. It's kind of cool to see Kevin Koe come out of Alberta to play his brother Jamie," Williams said.

This kicks off a fresh round of debate about the Brier standings and which brother is likely to prevail. Whichever Koe brother wins, the girls are definitely getting stoked watching.

"It's a bit hard to think about playing like a Brier team, 'cause they throw quadruple takeouts like it's no big deal, but when the Scotties was on too, we watched it with a passion," said Williams.

"I like the word 'passion,'" said O'Keefe, "it's a good word for curling."