SU’s curling team reaches for success despite absence of their Scottish skipper

Jeff Lutz’s ears perked whenever he received a phone call in the middle of the night. He’d answer the call and wake up to the voice of comfort and hope.

On the other end of the line was Andrew McClune, the best person in Syracuse who could slide a 42-pound stone and make it land as close as possible to a bulls-eye mark plastered under a sheet of ice.

Lutz admired McClune’s curling skills, and he enjoyed listening to the Lockerbie Scholar’s dream of winning a national championship for Syracuse University.

“He always talked about how cool it was going to be to go back to Scotland as a national champ,” said Lutz, a freshman broadcast journalism major.

That dream gave Lutz and McClune the incentive to assemble the university’s first curling team. Lutz recruited sophomore Adam Duke and freshman Jon Mason, both of whom discovered curling by watching the 2002 Winter Olympics on television.

The roles were set, the dream feasible. The four had begun practicing at the Utica Curling Club, about an hour from the SU Hill. Lutz had just finished typing up the club team proposal for SU Recreational Services when tragedy struck.

McClune fell from the seventh-floor window of Sadler Residence Hall to his death Dec. 13.

“It was a sudden shock and disbelief,” Lutz said. “After he passed away, he became our rallying cry.”

Three months to the day after McClune died, the team left for the 12th annual National College Curling Tournament in St. Paul, Minn., hoping to win at least one curling match for their skipper (captain) at nationals. The goal was a challenge; after all, this was a team who had just gotten the hang of the sport. Lutz had curled for three years in Michigan, but Duke and Mason had only six months of curling experience between them.

But their youth and inexperience didn’t phase them. The SU club curling team won all three round-robin matches held at the St. Paul Curling Club from March 13 to March 16.

With low expectations upon entering the tournament, the team won a silver medal, falling one point short in the Division 4 championship game against Wisconsin Community College Bay de Noc. It plans to send the silver pin award to McClune’s family.

“More than anything, we just wanted to send a silver pin in honor of his family to let them know how much (the team) meant to him,” Lutz said.

Lutz credits McClune with the team’s success and perseverance.

“I really didn’t believe myself after a while. There were points at nationals or even before the whole tournament began that I didn’t think this would happen. I thought we could always do the club next year. Andrew really pushed me, and after he passed away there was no way we were giving this up.”

They didn’t.

In their come-from-behind matches, the SU curlers displayed the Scottish brand of curling McClune instilled in them, and valued every shot.

Before the start of matches, each player touched the Scottish flag and said a prayer for him. In every shot the team took on ice, they thought about what McClune would do.

“He would have said to us ‘never go against the ice,’” Mason said.

When their moments came to throw the rock on the ice, the Orangemen thought of McClune and came through.

They remembered how at the Utica Curling Club McClune drew a crowd that stopped in their tracks just to see him slide a rock and say “look at that glide.” His 11 years of curling experience showed in each shot. His teammates emulated him and felt his presence in St. Paul.

“When he was on the team, he was the heart of the team. Even after he was gone, he was still the heart of the team,” said Mason, a freshman television, radio and film major.

McClune especially helped Lutz, who said McClune showed him how to enjoy the game and forget the frustration he had experienced on previous teams in Michigan. In McClune’s absence, Lutz had big shoes to fill, and he took on the role of skipper with Andrew in mind: “There’s no way we could’ve gone through this without thinking about him. We always thought about what he would do and that relaxed us. He had this calming effect.”

Hopes uncurled

The curling team’s tournament run in Minnesota mirrored the basketball team’s regular season storyline, but had a “Cool Runnings” finish.

The team came from behind to win all its curling matches, except one. It trailed by four points in the semifinal match against North Dakota State. The teams played eight ends, which are like innings in baseball.

With two ends left in the match and the team down, 5-1, Lutz looked down at his 42-pound curling stone and found a lucky sign.

“I bent down to pick up the rock and I see this ladybug lying right next to it,” Lutz said. “From what I hear, that’s good luck. So I said a little prayer and let it go and it was in perfect place.”

On that shot, Lutz slid the stone down a narrow sheet of ice, 120 feet in length, and gave it enough of a curl to propel it to the other end. His teammates, Duke and Mason, pushed down hard on their brooms to feverishly rid the ice of debris and make it smooth so the stone could travel far.

“Curling, you watch it and people are sweeping and you’re like ‘isn’t that cute?’ What they don’t realize about the sweeping is that when you’re doing it, you’re pressing down as hard as you can on the ice while running on the ice,” Mason said.

With Mason and Duke’s efforts, the stone landed in an area of “the house,” or target that North Dakota State had to reach. Lutz’s shot, called a “guard,” denied the Bisons from collecting points.

Final points are awarded when each skipper takes his last shot.

“If there’s one shot that I felt Andrew’s presence, it was that guard I made in the semifinals against North Dakota State,” Lutz said.

“I went down the ice and had this airy feeling. There were a lot people watching. We were the last game on the ice. Suddenly, everything was in slow motion.”

His shots against the Bisons helped seal the team’s come-from-behind victory and earned them a chance to compete in the championship game.

Learning curve

In the time they learned how to curl from McClune and Lutz, Duke’s and Mason’s attitudes went from considering the sport simple to grimacing in pain when they discovered exactly how hard it is to slide a $1,000, 42-pound rock from Ailsa Craig, Scotland. Scottish settlers brought curling to Canada, which to date has more curling teams than hockey teams.

“The slide you do to release the stone does a number on the groin,” Mason said.

During the tournament, Mason and the team held several superstitions.

They slept with their brooms the first night they won a match against the University of Miami of Ohio. Mason and Duke’s performances that night gave the team confidence for the rest of that weekend. Syracuse also attracted crowds and were the most noticeable among the teams in their bright orange curling suits that look like jogging warm-ups.

Whenever SU struggled, Lutz would take off his jacket and curl in a T-shirt — the same way Carmelo Anthony would take off his headband and take the game more seriously.

The unveiling of SU’s uniforms before the tournament reminded Mason of the Disney movie “Cool Runnings,” about a Jamaican bobsled team that proved its worth at the 1988 Calgary Olympics. Lutz would say to his teammates, “Yes, sprinters make the best curlers.”

“A minute after we lose,” Duke said. “I say, ‘Dammit Jeff, it’s just like ‘Cool Runnings.’”

Once they reached the locker room, Mason tried to keep the atmosphere light and sang, “Some people say you know you can’t believe, Syracuse, we have a curling team.”

Syracuse and Cornell University have the only curling teams in New York. Curling in the United States is most popular in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. There are 100 college curling teams, but only 50 that really matter, Lutz said.

That weekend, Syracuse was one of them.

The team exceeded its own expectations and wanted to win the gold for Andrew. They came as close as they could on their quest.

Following McClune’s memorial service in January, the team met his grandfather and family, telling them that it was going to compete at nationals.

“His grandfather told us in a thick Scottish accent, ‘Yes, you go to nationals and you win’ and it became our quest to honor him,” Mason said.

Curling: A Brief SynopsisOne player rolls a large, flat-bottomed object, called a stone, along a sheet of ice.

The goal is to get the stone as close to a target as possible.

Three others skate next to the sliding stone, brushing the ice, which allows the stone to travel further.

Each team throws eight stones, alternating back and forth, trying to get their stone close to the center while knocking the other team’s out.

Most curlers wear a special set of curling shoes. These shoes have one ‘slippy’ sole and one ‘sticky’ sole.

The ice measures roughly 150 feet long by 14 feet wide and at either end of the sheet is a bulls-eye-type target known as the house.

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