University of Manitoba curlers win big at world juniors

Team Zacharias brings home gold to friendly Manitoba

Team Zacharias shows off the hardware during the 2020 World Junior Curling Championship

Manitoba may have found its next curling superstars.

With a gold medal-winning performance at the 2020 World Junior Curling Championships in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, last month, Manitoba’s Team Zacharias put itself on the world curling radar.

Now back home, skip Mackenzie Zacharias, second Emily Zacharias, third Karlee Burgess and lead Lauren Lenentine, are all back at the U of M resuming studies and able to reflect on the experience.

“Playing in a world championship itself was just super special for all of us,” Mackenzie Zacharias said.

“We were just really thrilled to be able to play on that kind of like world stage, and then to be able to come home with gold was just really special.”

The experience of playing in Russia was itself a highlight for the squad, with Mackenzie noting how similar Krasnoyarsk was to Winnipeg climate-wise. The city was one of the first Russian settlements in Siberia, and is home to about one million residents.

Despite being in the middle of Siberia, the women  felt right at home, and the city’s population embraced the championship — along with its competitors — with all of the passion one would find at a Manitoba bonspiel.

“The entire city, all the people there were so nice,” Lenentine said.

“We would be walking down the street to a restaurant and someone would stop us and ask for a picture and it was just so cool because we were kind of like celebrities — but it was weird because we’re just Canadians — but they were so excited to see us.”

The international competition was also a highlight for Team Zacharias. While all the team members have played nationally within Canada, the chance to face opponents from non-traditional curling nations was an interesting change.

“The event itself was something not quite like what we’ve played in,” Lenentine said.

“Because we’ve all competed at nationals, but the international stage is a little different because you get teams from all over the world, so that was a cool experience, to just play teams that don’t speak English.

“We were, I think, the only native English [speaking] team there so that was a cool experience.”

Two international standouts for Team Zacharias were Team Hungary and Team Latvia.

“When you think of those countries you don’t think [they’re] big curling countries,” Burgess said.

“But when they were on the junior stage they actually had a really good week, and Latvia played a lot of great teams and had some great wins out of that. So, I kind of was surprised by those two teams how they qualified for the world [championship] and also had a really good week.”

Hungary went winless in the round robins while facingstiff competition. But the club showed some resilience, bouncing back from a 12-4 loss to Canada and 11-3 loss to Latvia with a narrow 5-4 loss to Norway and 9-8 loss to Sweden.

Latvia, meanwhile, went 4-5 in round robin play — including an 8-7 win over Sweden and a 7-6 win over Norway.

The Latvians left an impression on Lenentine as well, but for reasons other than just their surprisingly strong play during the tournament.

“I was also going to say Latvia, just because they had an 11-year-old on their team,” she said.

“And I think that in itself is a feat. She was the youngest player to ever compete at world juniors.”

The 11-year-old in question, Leticija Ievina, is the younger sister of Latvia vice-skip Rezija Ievina. Even without Leticija’s appearance, the Latvian rink had already made history, with the 2020 championship marking the first time Team Latvia qualified for the international bonspiel.

“She was the alternate,” Lenentine added.

“The only time I think she got to play was against us, which was pretty cool for her I bet.”

Now with a gold medal in hand, the four have returned to the U of M, where they are all students.

According to the group, U of M is home to some of the province’s strongest curling talent, yet no Bisons curling team exists, pointing to an obvious hole that could be filled.

“The U of M houses probably some of the best junior curlers in the province,” Emily Zacharias said.

“So, for so many of them not to be able to compete for their school that they go to, it’s a little bit of a disappointment.”

“Hopefully we’ll be able to start something in the near future — that would be really sweet.”