It was about a year ago that the University of Toledo Curling Club took to the ice for its first-ever competitive match.
The months-old club had about a dozen members, most of whom had never played the game until they joined the team in fall 2021. And they were going against a nationally ranked Penn State team, the oldest and largest curling club in the U.S., which agreed to travel to UT’s home ice at the Black Swamp Curling Center in Bowling Green.
The Rockets beat the Nittany Lions, 7-5 and 8-5.
That’s how UT’s Curling Club’s underdog story begins.
It continues Friday through Sunday, as the team competes in the 2023 College National Championship at the Black Swamp Curling Center, located at 19901 N. Dixie Hwy. Tickets are $5 for a single-day admission and $10 for a three-day admission.
“One of our goals when we started the club that semester is that it would be cool to compete at nationals,” said the team’s president and co-founder, Andrew Thomas, 23, a fifth-year senior studying computer science and engineering and electrical engineering who graduates in May.
“We all kind of knew that getting to nationals was possible, but that it would take an immense amount of work to get there.”
Thomas, along with the UT Curling Club’s co-founder and friend, Adam Billmaier, who served as the team’s vice president until graduating last May, each had the most curling experience on the team, having played the sport together for a semester in high school.
Megan Harper, the team’s secretary, was like most of the members: She had never touched a curling broom until she joined the team much less participated in a bonspiel, which is a curling tournament that typically takes place over multiple days.
“I didn’t know how to get started. I was really bad at the beginning, but I was determined to figure it out,” said Harper, 22, a senior studying paralegal studies who graduates in May and will be going to law school.
“It took me until my second bonspiel that I was comfortable and confident in my abilities.”
The team persisted and improved with the help of initial funding from the Student Allocation Committee and support from, among others, Stephen Christman, a professor in the Department of Psychology; Alana Malik, university assessment director; Alex Zernechel, associate director for student involvement and fraternity and sorority life; and Tony North Jr., assistant director of programs and leadership development.
“All of them have been instrumental in our success,” Thomas said.
By May of last year, the UT Curling Club was atop the national rankings. More recent losses, however, including an away game at Penn State, dropped them in the rankings.
“We were definitely sweating it,” Thomas said of the team making it to the 2023 nationals. “But as the weeks grew near it seemed like it was a bit more certain. We were just hoping all this work would pay off, but you don’t know until all the points are counted and you’re in.”
They made it — but barely. They are ranked 16th in the nation, which places them as the last seed in the 16-team national championship tournament.
“I am thrilled for all of the students in the UToledo Curling Club who have worked so hard over the past couple of years to create their club, and to jump into all of the opportunities that the sport of curling has to offer,” Malik said. “They are a great group of people, and I am so proud of all of their efforts. To be selected to participate in this national competition and to host their peers from around the country is truly an honor.”
The UToledo Curling Club has two challenges right away: Friday games against Penn State at 1 p.m. and Rochester Institute of Technology from Rochester, New York, at 8 p.m. They play a third match noon Saturday against top-seeded Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute from Troy, New York.
Thomas and Harper agreed that their path to the national championship will be difficult, but not impossible.
“I think we’ll be able to handle Penn State,” Harper said. “We’ve played RPI. We lost to them, but I think we held our own.”
Fans can watch the game live via YouTube and updates will be provided through the team’s Instagram account, @UTCurlingClub. But the UToledo Curling Club would love to have the Rocket family in the stands to cheer them on to victory.
“To have the support of everyone in the building and to see everybody supporting us would be super cool,” Thomas said. “And any extra money raised from the admission, 100% of that goes back to the club, which will really help us when competing next year.”
Tickets are available directly at the Black Swamp Curling Center beginning Friday.