FARGO - The next step in curling's American renaissance starts Saturday, March 3, at Fargo's Scheels Arena, but without Olympic gold-medal winning Team Shuster of Duluth, Minn.
Eighteen of the country's top men's and women's teams will compete at the 2018 USA Curling National Championships. Curling's popularity in the United States has probably never been stronger - thanks to last week's gold-medal victory of Team Shuster in PyeongChang, South Korea.
Although Shuster is unable to compete at nationals due to post-Olympic media commitments, the excitement generated by "The Miracurl on Ice" means that Fargo's timing couldn't be better. "Hosting the 2018 USA Curling Nationals in Fargo is tremendous for growing the sport," said event co-chair Jordan Lunders. "USA winning gold is exactly what curling needed to spark people's interest in the sport."
Shuster's absence gives the other talented men's teams a chance to shine. In particular, teams led by Heath McCormick (Blaine, Minn.), Pete Fenson (Bemidji, Minn.) and Todd Birr (Ham Lake, Minn.) look to be strong contenders to ascend Shuster's abandoned throne.
McCormick, a nationals winner in 2012, knows that winning the title at Scheels Arena could mean big things for his team. "It'd mean a lot to win and go to the world championship and try to make that another very successful result for the U.S.," he said.
Rounding out the men's field are teams skipped by Greg Persinger (Fairbanks, AK), Kroy Nernberger (Madison, Wis.), Alex Leichter (Boston), Tucker Smith (Bismarck), Scott Dunnam (Dresher, Pa.), Jed Brundidge (West St. Paul, Minn.) and Nick Connolly (Seattle, Wash.).
Like Shuster on the men's side, Team USA's Nina Roth bowed out of the women's event at nationals. But curling fans will enjoy watching Team Jamie Sinclair (Blaine, Minn.) fight to defend their 2017 national championship. The 26-year-old Sinclair stepped off the ice and into the NBC broadcast booth during the recent Winter Olympics to share her insights with viewers around the world.
Now, she's ready to let her curling do the talking - and what's on her mind is another successful run at nationals.
So far this season, Team Sinclair has won both the U.S. Open of Curling and the Shorty Jenkins Classic, while finishing runners-up at the International Bernese Ladies Cup and the U.S. Olympic Team Trials. They enter the nationals as strong favorites to repeat.
In Sinclair's way stand two Fargo-based teams skipped by Ann and Beth Podoll. Both of these teams aim to parlay hometown advantage into big upsets.
Teams skipped by Sarah Anderson (Minneapolis), Madison Bear (Pardeeville, Wis.), Kim Rhyme (Minneapolis), Emily Anderson (Broomall, Pa.) and Christine McMakin (St. Paul) will join the Podolls in challenging Sinclair for the top spot.
The nationals at Scheels Arena will go a long way in determining which teams represent the United States at the World Men's Championship in Las Vegas and the World Women's Championship in North Bay, Ontario.
Each winner also receives an invitation to the Grand Slam of Curling's prestigious Champions Cup event in April.
In recent years, Fargo has proven to be one of USA Curling's favorite locales. Scheels Arena previously hosted the 2011 National Championships and 2013 Olympic Team Trials - but never before with this much attention on the sport.
"I think the time is now to continue to promote the sport," McCormick said. "At every national and international competition, there's just more opportunity to grow the game. It's amazing the excitement around the Olympics, but now with that gold medal and building on it for more things to come - it should be a great opportunity."
If you go
What: USA Curling National Championships
When: Saturday, March 3, to Saturday, March 10
Where: Scheels Arena
Tickets can be purchased through TicketMaster and www.usacurlingnationals2018.com, with individual day tickets and week-long passes available.