BRANDON, Man. — Kevin Koe is headed back to yet another Brier final and he's made it look easy in Brandon, Man.
The Alberta skip defeated Brad Jacobs of Northern Ontario 9-4 in eight ends on Saturday night in the 1 vs. 2 game to punch his ticket into Sunday night's championship game.
It marks the sixth Brier final appearance for Koe, in only seven visits to the national curling championship. He's won it all three times before and is looking to become only the fourth skip to win four titles.
"These chances don't come too often. I'd obviously love to win another. We're going to be in tough whoever we play," Koe said. "But we're where we need to be."
Koe started Saturday night's playoff game strong by scoring two points in the first end. Then after a lengthy second end with rocks piled up out front of the rings and in the house, Koe stole three after Jacobs missed his last shot. It gave Koe a commanding 5-0 lead and he never looked back.
Koe still hasn't lost a game at the Brier, going 11-0 throughout the tournament and winning the playoff game Saturday.
WATCH | Koe advances to the Brier final:
After stealing 3 in the 2nd end to take a 5-0 lead, Team Alberta never looked back on the way to knocking off Northern Ontario 9-4 to advance to the final of the 2019 Brier. 0:59
"It's been a grind. It doesn't feel like we've won all our games. I just hope we come out and play our best game," Koe said.
The loss doesn't end Jacobs' Brier chances. He now meets Edmonton's Brendan Bottcher in Sunday's semifinal.
"That loss was all on me and on my shoulders. The boys played great in front of me and I told them I'll play better tomorrow," Jacobs said. "That's the plan."
Their name at this year's Brier is so perfectly fitting considering some of the antics they've pulled off this week — Brendan Bottcher and his Edmonton-based foursome won the right to play in this year's Canadian men's curling championship by winning the wild card game against John Epping.
And so that's what their name is at this year's Brier. Wild-card, complete with hats that have a Joker logo on the front and jerseys that have crowns on the back.
Even more fitting seeing as they dethroned Brad Gushue's rink on Saturday afternoon, defeating Team Gushue 7-2, to earn a spot in Sunday's semifinal.
It also ended Gushue's quest for a three-peat after back-to-back Brier wins.
WATCH | Bottcher ends Gushue's Brier reign:
Brendan Bottcher's Team Wild Card rink advanced to the 2019 Brier semifinal with a 7-2 win over 2-time defending champion Brad Gushue on Saturday. 1:00
"It's the perfect name for our team. We always seem to throw a wrench into things," said team third Darren Moulding. "We've done a few wild-cardish things this week. We just seem to have a few tricks up our sleeves."
Tricks that have including mounting an historic comeback against Manitoba — trailing 5-0 after four ends only to score three in the fifth, steal three more in the sixth and then eventually win the game in an extra end.
WATCH | Bottcher ties record for biggest comeback in Brier history:
Brendan Bottcher's Wild Card rink rallied from a 5-0 hole to beat Mike McEwen's Manitoba squad 9-8 in extra ends, matching the largest comeback in Brier history. 0:48
Or how about the picked-rock in the second end of the game against Gushue when it looked like the past champ was poised to score two, maybe three and put himself in a good position to win the game.
"It's a break you'll take and you do kind of think maybe something is on our side here. I've kind of felt that all week though," Moulding said.
No joking anymore, Bottcher's team is now one win away from making it back into the Brier final after losing in last year's championship game in Regina.
A sense of belonging at the Brier
All week long at this year's Brier in Brandon, skip Brendan Bottcher has talked about feeling like he finally belongs in the same conversation as the best curlers in Canada.
But there's no question it's been a long and winding journey for his team to feel this way while going up against teams they idolized growing up.
There have been some tough lumps to swallow along the way — throughout it all though they've been maturing on the ice and preparing for this exact moment.
"You have to keep slugging away," Bottcher said. "This week has been going so great for us. We started out a little slow and are now on a little bit of a roll."
The team has a slogan — Still Rollin' — and they just seem to keep chugging along despite previous setbacks.
Take for instance the 2017 Olympic Trials in Ottawa when they finished with a 4-4 record and just missed the playoff round. Bottcher then was gracious in defeat and admitted to having learned valuable lessons in those pressure-packed games.
It led the team of Bottcher, Moulding, second Brad Thiessen and lead Karrick Martin on a path to improvement that got them all the way into the Brier final against Gushue last year. They lost on a last-rock draw to the button by Gushue.
But this year, they feel ready for their big breakthrough.
"The biggest thing is just to relax," Bottcher said. "It's just another curling game and we've played all these top teams before."
Defending champions out
It's a shot that will haunt Gushue for quite some time.
Looking to score two, possibly three in the second end against Bottcher on Saturday afternoon, Gushue's last stone caught a piece of debris and went screeching sideways after crossing the hog-line.
The picked rock gave Bottcher a steal of one and swung the momentum in his team's favour.
"The pick was the story of the game," Gushue said. "There's no doubt about it. It's really disappointing. It's probably one of the top three or four worst breaks I've had in my career."
Gushue was looking to keep his Brier magic alive having won the last two championships. Never before though had he won a 3 vs 4 playoff game in four previous tries — then the picked rock in the second end happened.
"It was a big rock in the ice, it was sharp," Gushue said. "I actually had to dig my finger nail into the ice and the groove was really deep. When the rock went over it I could see the snow flying from behind it. It doesn't happen much, especially in this sort of atmosphere where there's such diligence to keep the ice clean and in perfect shape. It's just a freak thing and it just sucks."
Still though Gushue had praise for his team after the loss regarding what they've accomplished over the last number of years. Three years ago they were without a Brier title — now they've captured two as well as a world championship.
The picked rock loss will sting for a while though.
"It's kind of disappointing that the run kinda ended on those terms. We lost two games this week, to Northern Ontario and Alberta, where guys made incredible angle-raises to beat us. I'd sleep easier tonight if I'd been beaten that way as opposed to a pebble on the ice."
Gushue then gave Bottcher's wild card team high marks for the win — a vote of confidence for a team that might just be next in line for Brier greatness.
"They played well, they've played well all year and they're going have a chance to win this. I do wish them the best of luck going forward."
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