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Former rink mates set to collide in Charlottetown

In a sport that's so filled with luck and chances and bad breaks and changing conditions, it's not often the stars align to give us a delicious matchup on a national stage. Considering what teams have to accomplish just to make it to a Canadian final, there just aren't any certainties.

But such a contest will take place on Feb. 23 at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts in Charlottetown. The schedule reads Manitoba's Cathy Overton-Clapham versus Jennifer Jones and Team Canada, but almost every curling fan knows there is oh so much more on the line than just a round-robin game.

Until last spring, Overton-Clapham was part of Team Canada. She played third for Jones on a squad that won four of the past six Canadian titles. The bonus for winning that crown is a return trip to the Scotties wearing the Team Canada colours.

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But last spring, after a disappointing third-place finish at the world championship, Jones and teammates Jill Officer and Dawn Askin sacked their third, saying they were getting stale.

Understandably, Overton-Clapham was blindsided by the move; there aren't many Canadian champions who get cut, especially after being named all-star at her position in the Scotties. It would be like putting the NHL's Conn Smythe trophy winner on waivers while the Stanley Cup celebration was still going on.

"I don't disagree with changes," she said after a practice session on Wednesday. "I just think the hardest part was the timing of it all and what was taken away from me."

In addition to losing out on a return trip to the Scotties, Overton-Clapham's dismissal meant she also missed trips to the Continental Cup and the Canada Cup.

Kaitlyn Lawes, a former national junior champion, took over for Overton-Clapham and so far the team has had a successful season, winning three major events and cashing in at all but one.

In other sports, making tough personnel decisions such as these is accepted. In curling, for some reason, everyone wants to play nice and not hurt anyone's feelings. This one stung, to be sure.

After getting over the shock of the dismissal, Overton-Clapham moved on and put together another team that included Raunora Westcott, Leslie Wilson and Karen Fallis. The squad, which had played together for just two weeks, won the Manitoba title last weekend, and Overton-Clapham said she received calls and e-mails from supporters and fellow curlers. Much of it is likely because of the cold manner in which she was let go.

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"Everyone's been very supportive," said Overton-Clapham, who will skip for the first time at the national final. "I heard from some pretty highly ranked curlers who were congratulating me. It's been a bit overwhelming, to tell you the truth."

There's little doubt this game will overshadow just about everything except the final at the Scotties. But Overton-Clapham said she's approaching it as just one more in a long week.

"I'm not look at this as getting back at them," she stated. "I'm past that. Three months ago I might not have been but right now I'm going to take the same approach as I will against Alberta and Saskatchewan and every other team."

By no means will the two Winnipeg teams be the only ones in the running for the national title. The rest of the field heading to Charlottetown is deep and talented.

Shannon Kleibrink, the 2006 Olympic bronze medalist, knocked off 2010 silver medalist Cheryl Bernard to win the Alberta crown and 2007 world champion Kelly Scott is returning wearing the B.C. colours.

The 2010 Canadian Junior champion Rachel Homan moved up a division to win Ontario. She brings one of the most talented young squads in the land into the fray.

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Another former Canadian junior champ, Andrea Kelly, will represent New Brunswick for the third consecutive year, while the home province team is skipped by Suzanne Birt.

The Nova Scotia team is headed up by Heather Dacy-Smith, but she took over the duties after the team's original skip, the legendary Colleen Jones, was felled by bacterial meningitis in December.

Also in the field are Saskatchewan's Amber Holland, Stephanie Devereaux of Newfoundland and Labrador, and Kerry Galusha from the Northwest and Yukon Territories. Quebec's representative will be determined this weekend.

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