It’s official: John Shuster will defend his 2018 Olympic championship in Beijing.
Shuster and his team from Chaska, MN played a deliberate final match of a best-of-three playoff and forced errors from opposing skip Korey Dropkin of Duluth, MN to win his fifth consecutive U.S. Olympic Team Trials title.
It was a 5-4 final scoreline at Baxter Arena in Omaha, NE.
The result marks the second consecutive time Shuster came back from elimination and won two sudden-death games to claim his Olympic berth. On Friday night, Dropkin thumped Shuster before the veterans rebounded with a taut victory on Saturday, forcing the final battle.
Shuster defeated a team featuring Dropkin and Duluth’s Chris Plys in the 2017 Trials final series. Plys now throws third stones for the victorious Shuster, while Matt Hamilton and John Landsteiner remain from the 2018 Olympic championship squad.
“It’s the relationships you develop with curling teams over time,” said the 39-year-old Shuster. “I’ve been with John for over a decade, and Matt for eight years. And Chris, it feels like he’s played with us for a decade.
“The more you play with people and the closer you become … we’ve become such great friends, almost brothers.”
Indeed, Plys’ relations with Shuster go back a decade. Clubmates in Duluth, Plys was chosen as Shuster’s alternate for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, and was pressed into game action when Shuster struggled.
Shuster held the hammer for two opening blanks, and a solid third end from Dropkin lead to Shuster drawing to the full eight-foot rings for a 1-0 lead. In another well-played fourth, Dropkin was forced to a somewhat tricky hit and stick to tie the game.
After another fifth-end blank, the wheels started to fall off the Dropkin machine. The 26-year-old skip missed his second shot of the sixth end, giving Shuster a draw for two and a 3-1 lead.
Dropkin faced a tough draw for a single point in the seventh, but rubbed his stone in the four-foot to fall behind 4-1.
After a great Shuster double in the eighth, Dropkin decided against playing something risky and drew for one … and came up light, now trailing 5-1.
Team Dropkin, which includes former Shuster teammate Joe Polo, Mark Fenner, Tom Howell and Alex Fenson, scored two in the ninth but the writing was on the wall. A simple takeout in the 10th end gave Dropkin a final point, and Team Shuster began to celebrate.
“I’ve never thought more about how we needed to execute a game plan to counter somebody else’s game plan,” said Shuster. “Because we know exactly the way they play. And the way they play is pretty relentless, you’re probably not going to get a chance at big ends, and you’re going to have to play a low scoring game.
“I spent a long, long time thinking about the best way to counteract the way that they play.”
Team Shuster will now prepare for Beijing along with the Tabitha Peterson foursome from East St. Paul, MN. They won their second straight women’s title on Saturday night over Cory Christensen of Chaska, MN.
Plys has a chance to compete in two Olympic disciplines, just as his teammate Hamilton did—along with Hamilton’s sister Rebecca—four years ago. In early December, Plys and his mixed doubles partner Vicky Persinger will attempt to finish in the top two at the Olympic Qualifying Event in the Netherlands, which would clinch a mixed doubles spot in Beijing.
If successful, Plys will join Great Britain’s Bruce Mouat and Sweden’s Oskar Eriksson as the third male curling athlete in both Olympic disciplines in February.
Plys and Persinger won the U.S. Olympic Mixed Doubles Trials at Eveleth, MN last month.
Dropkin third Joe Polo won Olympic bronze with Shuster back in 2006 and owns a gold medal as Team Shuster’s alternate at PyeongChang 2018. Team Shuster had no alternate player in Omaha.
Throughout the week, the local Aksarben Curling Club, which plays at the Baxter Arena complex, hosted reunions, mixers and “Try Curling” sessions for the public, attracting hundreds. Club officials also held stakeholder meetings to discuss a dedicated curling facility in the area, which would continue the remarkable growth of curling participation venues across the United States.
Former Shuster third Tyler George, who retired after winning the Olympic gold, is now a curling ambassador in the U.S.