Islanders curling team from L-R Corey Chester,Paul CsekemJay Wakefield and Ty Russell. Photo by Mike Dickson

by Mike Dickson

Hometown hustle
It’s a high-water mark for any curler to gain a place at a provincial championship. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime coincidence for the event to be played in their hometown. To win a mixed doubles provincial and then play in the men’s provincial, both on home ice? The stuff of dreams, but for Islander skip Corey Chester, those dreams will become reality when his squad joins the eleven others vying for glory at the BC Men’s Curling Provincial Championships from January 23 rd – 30 th at Archie Browning Arena in Esquimalt.

“It’s difficult to describe. This doesn’t happen ever, to have one provincial in a hometown let alone two provincials in four weeks,’ said Cory Chester, who skipped the Islanders to a clutch performance in the Open Qualifiers last month, winning all three of their matches to punch their ticket to BC’s best-on-best for the third time, where they will compete under the moniker Team Chester. It’s a vindicating accomplishment for a team that saw its share of silverware last year, including a silver medal for Chester in mixed doubles last year, an experience that fueled the fire to return with a vengeance.

Islanders curling team from R-L Corey Chester,Paul CsekemJay Wakefield and Ty Russell. Photo by Mike Dickson

“I had to go through that last year, losing the final, to be that much hungrier to win it at home this year, which mattered more, it mattered way more.” After a dominant performance alongside Taylor Reese-Hansen to win the BC Mixed Doubles Championship on December 31 at the Victoria Curling Club, Chester has turned his focus towards the
Islanders and their quest to be BC’s entry to the 2024 Montana’s Brier, which begins March 1 in Regina. Joining him on the Islanders are lead Ty Russell, second Jay Wakefield and third Paul Cseke.

Islanders heating up
After an early-season string of tough bounces, missed opportunities and soul-searching, the Islanders are riding a hot streak heading into the provincials, having won their three qualifying games in convincing fashion to stake their place in the provincials.
A late-season shakeup seemed to provide an infusion of new energy for the team. Prior to the 2023 BC Open Qualifiers, Cseke and Chester switched positions. Since then, the results speak for themselves. “It was evident me early on that Corey was playing really well when skipping, and just wasn’t shooting the same when he was sweeping,” says Paul Cseke, who skipped the team to the provincial finals in 2022. “So eventually we made the change, and he’s been absolutely lights out since then.” Going with the hot hand seems to have galvanized the Islanders.

“Right after we made the change, we went 3-0 in zones and really found our groove,” says Paul Cseke, who will be throwing third stone in the coming tournament. “Then Corey went to mixed doubles provincials and was absolutely dominant, so he’s clearly the hot hand and having him skip is easily the right call.”

Ty Russell elaborates on their whirlwind season. “Early on, we had a couple bad breaks, all around it but couldn’t quite get there, flirting with it but we didn’t quite get into ‘Islander Mode.’ “Our season started off slow but has really ramped up of late,” says Russell, who previously played college baseball in the US. “Our momentum has us in position to make a run at it, feeling dangerous.” This will be the third provincial the Islanders have competed in. The team has come tantalizingly close to the title in the last couple of years. After making it all the way to the finals in 2022, a nail-biting, heartbreaking loss in extra ends was followed up by a run of challenging form that saw the rink bow out in the qualifying round in 2023. The Islanders were eager to flip the calendar to 2024 and a fresh start.

Consistency is Key
One attribute that has characterized the Islanders tenure is the consistency of their lineup this season, in a year where that wasn’t necessarily the case elsewhere. “A ton of teams in the province changed personnel this year. There were a lot of transactions, it was a
hot stove,” says Russell. The familiarity of playing together for a couple of seasons allows for some impressive adaptability within the team, as Chester, Wakefield and Cseke have all skipped at various points in the Islanders’ tenure. It also builds trust, which allows the team to make alterations in strategy that other crews might balk at, such as switching skips before the two biggest tournaments of the season. “Adaptability comes to mind first,” says Wakefield. “Everybody is willing to do whatever makes the team function at its best, year over year, and I haven’t been on a team so willing try new things.” At the highest level in the province, the difference between victory and heartbreak can be miniscule. A centimetre here, an over-curl of the stone there, and the horrifying question of ‘what if’ can begin to splinter in a team’s collective brain. But a far more important question for this team is ‘what now?’ “We’re wiping the slate clean, starting at the same spot as everyone else is, and that’s what we want,” says Chester. “Same number of games left to win, we’ve played in a final before, recently, and our goal is to make that game again.”

After walking a path this season that was anything but linear, the team is relishing the opportunity to compete for the provincial title, despite an uneven season on the whole.
“Earlier in the year, we felt like we were playing well at events, but we’d have one missed shot or one bad end that would be enough to sink us,” says Islander second Jay Wakefield, a mainstay on provincial- bound teams for the last decade and the only member of the team not based in Victoria. “That’s to be expected in a tightly-contested sport. But it’s all about trying to peak at the right time, and everything we’ve been working on during the season is coming together recently, so we’re feeling good about our lineup and our play heading into the tournament.”

Russell echoes his sentiments. “It’s a hallmark of our team in that we know we have a good formula, and as soon as we can bring it all together, we’re gonna be right there.”

There is a buzz of excitement within the team for the opportunity to be at the big dance once again. Chester, Cseke and Russell all call Victoria home, and to tangle with the best in the province with family and friends in attendance will be a special time, a fact not lost on the only team member who must take a ferry to get to the tournament. “I’m so excited for the guys, getting to play in a home provincial,” says Wakefield, who makes the trek from the Lower Mainland to Victoria for weekly practices during the season.

For many across BC, January brings a post-holiday malaise and a yearning for the spring. For Paul Cseke, this is the good stuff. “Some people love the holidays, some to going to Mexico in January, but January before provincials is my favourite time of year,” says Cseke. “The shortest days of the year, the coldest, the rainiest, it’s the best feeling everyday waking up, knowing you get to compete again.”