Yogi Berra once said: "It ain't over, till it's over," and that was the thought process coming in Wednesday night for Team USA with tiebreaker possibilities still very ripe. But China crawled back late into the game and out-played the U.S. in the final three ends to put to rest the playoff hunt for Pete Fenson's team as they suffered a 5-4 loss at the 2011 Ford World Men's Championship.
"I thought we were playing good and had control of the game, couple things go wrong late there...I'm speechless," said Fenson, who brought home USA's first-ever Olympic medal in curling in 2006 when his team won the bronze medal.
With the loss, Fenson (Bemidji) and teammates Shawn Rojeski (Chisholm), Joe Polo (Duluth) and Ryan Brunt (Bemidji) drop to 3-6 with two games remaining at the Brandt Centre.
"Every time we step on the ice we try to win as many games as we can win. We said that before we got here. We said that when we came here. That's what we do," Fenson said.
In a game ripe with sensor handle malfunctions early on that threw off the rhythm of the game and slowed it down, the U.S. seemingly had control of most of the match up until the eighth end against China's Yan Song Ji rink.
"Tonight, we're playing good and kinda just cruising along two up, and it just sort of gotta away from us at the end there," Fenson said.
After the first end was blanked, the Americans got two stones positioned at the top and bottom of the rings. Fenson's sensor handle malfunctioned on his last rock (neither green or red light came on) and after a 10-minute debate with coaches and officials, the handle was replaced, play was resumed and Ji came up short drawing into the house and the U.S. stole a point. [Earlier, one of China's handles wasn't working properly and had to be swapped out with a replacement. In the seventh, play was stopped as well as China had trouble with one of their handles again. That one did not need replacing.]
Two missed peels and a rollout on a hit by the U.S. in the fourth end allowed China to get two rocks lined up in the house. That was no issue for Fenson, however, who threw a raise double takeout to put a halt to China's big end and the Americans stole another single. China finally got the deuce set up in the sixth end, but their skipper's woes with the draw game continued as this time he was heavy and his rock was swept out the back door as they settled for one point instead.
With the last-rock advantage for the first time in the game, the U.S. was forced to make a takeout for a single in the seventh end to extend the lead to 3-1. A missed takeout by Rojeski in the eighth end left China with a rock in the four-foot. Rojeski tried to freeze/guard it with his next stone, but it didn't line up to benefit the U.S. China drew around to the back of the four-foot for second count. The U.S. then opted to made a takeout of a rock in the side of the eight-foot with their final stone, instead of drawing to the four-foot, which is what Ji did to earn two and tie the game.
"We guarded the run-in and then on my last one, the guard wasn't very good...it was close to the other guard, so I didn't think I could throw the draw and get shot. I figured he'd have a free draw for two anyway, the other way, so we just whacked the open one," Fenson said when asked about the eighth-end strategy. "I figured no matter how good I make it, he'll just throw it to the side of the button for two. Maybe we should have thrown the draw in there anyway and made it tougher on him...that might have been a mistake... live and learn."
In the ninth end, Fenson's first stone jammed on his takeout but his shooter rolled into the four-foot to be shot rock. Ji was able to pop it out leaving three Chinese rocks for Fenson to draw against. The seven-time U.S. champion earned the single for the U.S. and they took a one-point lead into the final end.
In the 10th end, the U.S. went for the steal, opting not to peel the guards with Rojeski's first stone, and made a soft hit on the Chinese rock behind the guard in the side of the eight foot instead. With his second, Rojeski had similar fate and his rock was left as an easy target. China made the hit and rolled into the four-foot. Fenson removed it but China still had a stone in the eight-foot. Ji's first brick was a perfect come-around draw to the top of the four-foot. Fenson tried the runback and didn't convert and China didn't need to throw its final stone as the game was already won.
"I thought I had that. The ice had ran straight on my first one so I was confident telling Shawn to put the broom on the front of it, and going down it looked good and then just didn't play out the way it looked like it would," Fenson said.
As a skip at the world championships, Fenson, 43, has come close several times to medaling but hasn't been able to reach that pinnacle. (Fenson won the world bronze medal in 1993 as vice skip for Scott Baird, the team's alternate here this week).
"There were a couple early games where we weren't real sharp. We weren't playing real good and lost a couple that, who knows, maybe we don't lose them if we're playing better. Then we started playing good against Canada, and we lost. Jeff [Stoughton] was great, and we were great. Those kind are a little easier to live with. You get beat sometimes, you know," Fenson said. "Then the Norway game, Thomas made a great shot for the win there. That one was okay, except, it's a big game to lose, it was the fifth one. There was just a couple earlier - Switzerland and Germany - that we just didn't play very good...and those are hard to take because we never like to go out there and not play good."
Team USA finishes the round robin on Thursday with games against Scotland (7-2) in the afternoon and France (6-3) in the evening draw. The USA-France game will air live at 8:30 p.m. via webstream at www.universalsports.com/curling.