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Kayla Skrlik delivered a breakout performance as an underdog at her provincial curling championship last season. The defending champ is hoping for a repeat showing at this year’s playdowns now that she’s a favourite.

Skrlik is one of the headliners in the upcoming Alberta Scotties, one of several playdowns on tap ahead of the Feb. 16-25 Scotties Tournament of Hearts. The men’s national championship – the Montana’s Brier – is set for March 1-10.

Women’s playdowns are under way this week in Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and the Northwest Territories. Other provinces – including curling heavyweights Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario – will kick things off next week.

Many of the men’s playdowns will run concurrently with the women’s championships while others will run on their own in early February.

Skrlik, a 26-year-old from Calgary, is in a loaded Alberta field that includes Edmonton’s Selena Sturmay, Jessie Hunkin of Spruce Grove, Alta., and Edmonton’s Serena-Gray Withers. The winner will wear provincial colours at the Hearts in Calgary.

“We knew going into this season that the field was going to be just as tough,” Skrlik said Thursday. “I think there’s a lot of rising stars in Alberta.”

Skrlik made a game-winning double-takeout for a 9-8 win over Casey Scheidegger of Lethbridge, Alta., in last year’s final. In her first career Hearts appearance, Skrlik posted a 4-4 record and did not make the playoffs.

“I think one of the biggest take-aways is that we can play these (top) teams and we can hold our own,” Skrlik said. “[We] found that out at Alberta provincials, that was a turning point for us last year. And at the Scotties we had a chance at [the] playoffs close to the end.

“It was a big confidence booster for us to get to go there as a team.”

Kerri Einarson of Gimli, Man., won her fourth straight national women’s title last year in Kamloops, B.C., and will be the Canada entry at the WinSport Event Centre.

Ottawa’s Rachel Homan and Winnipeg’s Jennifer Jones have pre-qualified based on their rankings from last season.

Two spots in the 18-team national field are reserved for the highest-ranked teams that do not win their respective playdowns.

A second berth was created after Nunavut’s recent announcement that it would not be sending a team. Bayly Scoffin will represent Yukon after winning that territory’s championship last week.

Homan, Jones and Einarson currently hold the top three spots in the Canadian rankings. At No. 4, Winnipeg’s Kaitlyn Lawes is well-positioned to pick up a Scotties berth even if she doesn’t win in Manitoba.

Sturmay, meanwhile, is fifth overall with a slim lead on Ottawa’s Danielle Inglis, B.C.’s Corryn Brown, Kate Cameron and Jolene Campbell of Winnipeg, and Gray-Withers at No. 10. Skrlik is close behind in 11th, ahead of Christina Black of Halifax and Vancouver’s Clancy Grandy.

“It’s definitely tightening up in the top 10 in Canada,” Skrlik said. “It’ll be interesting to see (what happens).”

In a change this season, Curling Canada will no longer use wild-card team references at the nationals. Those team names will instead include the province and skip surname (for example, Manitoba-Jones or Ontario-Homan).

At the Brier in Regina, Brad Gushue of St. John’s, N.L., will return as the Canada entry. He won last year in London, Ont., for his fifth national men’s title in seven years.

Calgary’s Brendan Bottcher and Winnipeg’s Matt Dunstone are the pre-qualified teams. Bottcher, Gushue and Calgary’s Kevin Koe hold the top three spots in the men’s rankings ahead of Winnipeg’s Reid Carruthers and Saskatoon’s Mike McEwen.

Thomas Scoffin will represent Yukon at the Brandt Centre and Shane Latimer will skip the Nunavut entry.

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