Feb. 1—The Greenhorns made history on Jan. 21 at Lake Windermere, British Columbia, and it's at least partly because a group of Whitefish High graduates started playing Wii.
The home video game console drew the quartet of Jessica Hensley, Justin Rubacalba, Abby Bryson and Jason Schmidt together, and before you could say, "We play Wii," they settled on curling. Soon enough, though, the flat screen just wasn't satisfactory. They wanted the real thing.
Fast forward to 2023, when the Greenhorns made their yearly sojourn to the Bonspiel on the Lake. Teams are guaranteed four matches of six "ends" — think innings — each, and the tournament uses a waterfall bracket. That is, you drop into one the lower three divisions with each loss.
They finished 32nd.
"Our goal going in this year was 28th place," Hensley said, but in 2024 the Greenhorns kept winning, six matches in all. One of only two American teams in the field (the other came from Seattle), they are the first from the U.S. to win it since the tournament began in 1983.
It was cold and fun and at times, intense.
"In the semifinals we went to an extra end," Hensley said. "We were down by one, and they were sitting shot-rock. I was the skip and had to take it out. We tied the game, took it to an extra end, we put two in the house and they had to take us out — and they missed by a quarter-inch."
In 2009 the Whitefish Curling Club formed, with Dennis Dortsch as one of the founding members. It was the first of its kind in Montana, and Dortsch was big into the sport. In 2010, he traveled to the Bonspiel on the Lake, touted as the largest outdoor curling tournament in the world with 64 teams.
His role was as a volunteer: He went up to help set up the outdoor lanes on Lake Windermere.
"There were several teams on a Thursday afternoon that canceled and couldn't make it," he remembered. "Nobody could get a team to Windermere in 12 hours. I had my wife and sister-in-law, and we found another guy that wanted to curl and we formed a team."
This is how Dortsch got an American team into a tournament with a waiting list 60 teams deep. "Under normal circumstances I'd still be on that waiting list," he said.
That same year, 2010, is when the Greenhorns joined the WCC. Dortsch kept bringing teams to Canada and eventually, as players retired, he brought on Schmidt, then Rubacalba, then Hensley.
"I have been coaching the Greenhorns for about 10 years," he said. "I skipped the team for a few years, and then I blew out my meniscus and had to turn it over to the vice-skip."
That's Hensley; she in turn brought on Bryson, who by the way is married to Rubacalba, as vice-skip.
"And they've been doing progressive better and things just turned out right over the last weekend," Dortsch said. "On Thursday it was 27 below at 8 o'clock. And they kept curling until 1:30 in the morning. And it didn't get any warmer.
"When they won those first two games, I knew they were going strong."
Hensley thinks maybe Dortsch was going by celsius; nonetheless it was cold enough that her teammates wished they, too, had brought their knitted beard-hats. In the end the final was less dramatic. Two in the house in the sixth end clinched an 8-5 win for the Greenhorns.
Each team member received some cash and a decorative gold-embossed glass stone.
Not bad for a team that rarely found ice time.
"Monday nights from 9-11," Hensley said. "For most of us with kids and jobs, that's a brutal time commitment. In the fall, we got some consistent Friday ice time. But we went up to this tournament and we probably hadn't curled in like two months."
On the other hand, the Montanans might have had a distinct advantage. While the Canadians have dedicated ice time, Hensley said, "Down here, we'll go after two hockey games."
Lake Windermere's lanes had a post-hockey game feel.
"Cracks and burns," Hensley said. "That's kind of our jam. We're like, 'We can curl around this.' "
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