Tyrel Griffith (left) and Rick Sawatzky patrol a rock thrown by skip Jim Cotter at the Home Hardware Canada Cup of Curling

Tyrel Griffith (left) and Rick Sawatzky patrol a rock thrown by skip Jim Cotter at the Home Hardware Canada Cup of Curling

Cotter set to defend B.C. crown on home ice

Jim Cotter's Vernon rink set to defend B.C. men's curling crown on home ice.

The last time the provincial men’s curling championships were held in Vernon, Jim Cotter won on home ice.

Cotter, the reigning B.C. champ and Brier runner-up, is hoping for a repeat performance of 2011, when the Vernon Curling Club last hosted the Canadian Direct Insurance provincial finals, as play in the 16-rink field begins today at 9 a.m.

“It’s great to play at home,” said Cotter, backed by newcomer Ryan Kuhn at third, who replaced John Morris (Kuhn is a former world junior champion), and the familiar front end of second Tyrel Griffith and lead Rick Sawatzky.

“It’s good to have family, friends and curling club members’ support. It’s always good to play close to home. We don’t get to do that very often.”

Cotter earned his spot in the field as the defending champion. His foursome last played in mid-December in a Grand Slam of Curling event in Yorkton, Sask., where they reached the quarterfinals.

While it’s nice to be playing at his home club, Cotter doesn’t think home ice will be an advantage for him or the other Vernon foursome, skipped by veteran Mark Longworth.

“The ice and rocks are completely different than they have been all year, so there’s no advantage,” said Cotter, winner of three of the last four B.C. titles, and seeking a fifth purple heart (as provincial champ).

The champs open against the Langley/Victoria foursome skipped by Daniel Wenzek, who competed in the Rick Cotter Memorial Junior Cashspiel in Vernon, named after his late father and organized by Cotter. Wenzek failed to qualify for the junior provincials but made the men’s field.

“I’m not sure if he did that with a different rink or if it’s just him,” said Cotter, when asked about his opening draw opponent.

“We’re going to approach the first game like every other game. Everyone’s going to be fired up as provincials are starting. We’ll go out there and learn as much as possible about the rocks and ice. They’re all big games. We haven’t played in a while, so we have to make sure we do the little things.”

Longworth is competing in his eighth provincial tankard – his first was in 1980 with Wayne Laface, and his second appearance came 20 years later in 2000. This is his third straight trip to the provincials, but it marks the first time Longworth has competed at home.

“Two things: one, it’s nice to play in your home building although I don’t think it’s a huge advantage if any,” said Longworth. “Merk (icemaker Dave Merklinger) will have the ice and rocks more to an arena setting. You’ll see big curl and big finish on the rocks. A lot of great shot-making.

“Second, it’s always nice, for me, to play at home so friends and family have a chance to come out and watch.”

He’s joined again this year by his son, Michael, at third, and a new front end of second Jonathan Gardner and lead John Slattery.

Longworth has been to the provincials with Michael three times, and coached Gardner and his son to the 2011 B.C. junior mens championship.

He opens up this morning against fellow veteran Brent Pierce of Kelowna, a two-time provincial champion and former world champion (with Greg McAulay in 2000).

“Whoever we drew was going to be a tough team,” said Longworth. “Going in, Brent’s going to be one of the favourites. He’s got Jeff Richard throwing fourth rocks. They’ve both been to the Brier. I’ve always had some great battles with Brent.  It’s definitely a tough draw for us but every draw is going to be looked as at a tough draw.”

Round-robin draws go today at 9 a.m., 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and at 9, 2 and 7 Thursday and Friday with the top-four teams advancing to the Page playoff format Saturday.

First meets second place at 11 a.m. with the winner getting a spot in Sunday’s final at 12:30 p.m.

Third place plays fourth at 11 a.m. Saturday with the loser out and the winner meeting the loser of 1 vs 2 at 7 p.m. Saturday in the semifinal.

The champion will represent B.C. at the Tim Hortons Brier in Calgary, Feb. 28-March 7.

ICE CHIPS: The provincial field also includes former Vernon junior Tom Buchy of Kimberley, who has former Vernon resident Dave Stephenson of Kelowna throwing third rocks; two-time champ Dean Joanisse of New Westminster, who has Salmon Arm’s Paul Cseke at third; 2009 champ Sean Geall of New West, who has 2013 winner Andrew Bilesky at third; and Jason Montgomery of Duncan, who lost last year’s final to Cotter.