Noah Witte didn’t come back to Eau Claire to curl, but it was a nice perk.
The sophomore at UW-Eau Claire grew up in the city until moving away to Wausau in high school, where he fell in love with the game of curling. A return home for college meant he could continue competing and gave him an opportunity to up his game.
“I didn’t pick up competitive curling until I made it to college,” said Witte, now the president of the UWEC curling club. “The summer before I came here I went to the USA Junior Curling Camp. That’s where I met my teammates and decided to see how it goes.”
Two years later, he’s getting an opportunity to show his skills on a national stage right in his backyard.
Witte is one of four UW-Eau Claire students set to compete in the USA Curling Junior National Championships, which will be hosted by Eau Claire next week. Action kicks off on Sunday with the opening ceremony, while games begin Monday at the Eau Claire County Expo Center and will run through Saturday.
“It’s so cool to have nationals here this year,” Witte said. “I hope I have the biggest cheering section out there.”
While Eau Claire has hosted major curling events before, including the College National Championship and Mixed Doubles National Championship, this year marks the first time the Junior National Championships are taking place in the Chippewa Valley.
“It’s the top players from all over the United States coming to our home club,” said Mike Peplinski, a former Olympian and current Eau Claire Curling Club member. He’ll also be coaching one of the boys teams during the event, Team Thurston.
“It’s a pretty neat opportunity for our club to host this event and to see these top talented kids come into Eau Claire,” Peplinski continued. “It showcases our curling club, our city.”
Fellow Blugolds Anya Normandeau and Rebecca Rodgers will also be competing at the event, with all three UWEC students on different teams. Normandeau is a skip, or the captain, meaning her team takes on her namesake. With this being her third national championship appearance, many of the jitters have worn away. Getting to play so close to her school and on familiar turf makes this one special, though.
“Personally, I think it’s kind of an advantage toward me because I know the club, I understand the ice,” said Normandeau, a sophomore at UWEC. “Honestly, I just love the club there so it will be a lot of fun being there.”
Rodgers, who has earned bronze the last two years at this event, is on Team Strouse. She’s the lead, meaning she plays the first two stones.
There’s certainly a Wisconsin flair to the rosters, with 20 of the competitors from in-state, but others come from as far west as Alaska and as far east as Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New York.
In total 16 teams of four qualified for competition, eight men’s and eight women’s. The squads aren’t just battling for a national title, but also a chance to represent the United States at the 2020 World Junior Curling Championships in Russia on Feb. 15 through 22.
“If we were able to attend worlds, it would honestly just baffle me,” Normandeau said. “I’d be really excited to do it and represent the United States.”
The event is open to the public, with tickets costing $10 per day and $50 for a weeks pass. Tickets for children under 12 are half price.
Those who can’t make it down to the Expo Center can also stream competition online. That’s how many of the trio of Blugolds’ friends will have to tune in, considering the competition runs during the school’s Winterim.
Witte expects to have a strong following of friends and family still in the area. He said he’s excited for Eau Claire to see this high a level of curling up close.
“It’s nice having this type of attention drawn to the sport here to Eau Claire,” he said.