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Yukon curlers face a brand new challenge at Mixed Nationals

Skip Nicole Baldwin and her Whitehorse-based rink made some time for a little last-minute practice on Thursday before heading to Calgary for the…

Skip Nicole Baldwin and her Whitehorse-based rink made some time for a little last-minute practice on Thursday before heading to Calgary for the Canadian Mixed National Championships.

It’s the first Mixed Nationals for all four curlers (including lead Helen Strong, second James Buyck and third Wade Scoffin) — so you might think they need all the practice they can get.

“It’s new for everyone, but we do have the advantage of a variety of experience at other national events,” said Scoffin.

This Yukon team could almost be described as being made up of grizzled veterans. Scoffin has been to the Brier twice over his 10-year competitive career, and Buyck has made it to the Brier as well.

Baldwin served as an alternate for Kerry Koe’s NWT rink that represented the territories at last years’ Scotties Tournament of Hearts, and she ended up playing four games.

Baldwin, the team’s “young gun” also played for several years as a top junior for Yukon, making her first appearance at the junior nationals in 1998.

She definitely noticed the difference when she made the jump from junior. “When you get there, you know you’re on the top of that mountain. I learned a lot there, and took away a lot of good memories.”

Strong is the only member of the team that hasn’t been to a national event, but as Scoffin’s wife she’s seen her fair share of curling clubs. “She’s been involved for a long time as a supporter, and now she’ll be competing.”

The Mixed is the kick-off of the Canadian Curling Associations’ Season of Champions, and is often looked upon as a warm-up or icebreaking event.

Whitehorse hosted the event in November 2005, as an early Canada Games test event — that year there was no local team to root for, as NWT’s Koe rink won the territorial playdowns.

“A lot of competitive curlers use the Mixed as a way to get into national competition,” said Scoffin, who has a competitive men’s rink, which includes Buyck and is shooting for the 2008 Brier.

Because the Mixed is so early in the season, qualifying took place in February, where Baldwin’s rink went undefeated in a double round-robin on home ice at the Whitehorse Curling Club.

“It’s difficult for us to know what to expect,” said Scoffin, when asked about his team’s chances — which generally follow a David and Goliath pattern against the provinces.

“We’d like to be in the middle of the pack at the very least. We have a lot of experience, and we’ve been playing well lately.

“There are some rinks we know we competitive with, and if we can get our opponents to really earn their wins, and force the play, that would be good.”

“Really, we’re there to learn, and have a bit of fun,” added Baldwin.

There may be more at stake than ever at this year’s Mixed — two members of the winning team will gain entry into the mixed doubles world championships in Finland.

This specialized version of the classic game has a two-on-two, five-rock format. Scoffin said the Olympics are looking at this game, which developed out of the Continental Cup of Curling, which pits North America against Europe in standard curling, mixed doubles and a skins game.

Baldwin’s rink will play 11 games in the round-robin, facing each province once over the six-day tournament, which finishes on Friday, November 16.