LETHBRIDGE, Alta. — It wasn't the bright lights or TV cameras that gave Newfoundland and Labrador's Nicholas Codner the realization he was actually a competitor at the national men's curling championship.
It truly sunk in for the 15-year-old once he arrived at the tournament hotel.
"Just the guys walking around. It's like, 'Oh my God, that's Kevin Koe. Oh my God, that's Mike McEwen,'" Codner said Monday. "It kind of hit me. It was like, 'Oh my God, we're at the Brier.'"
Codner is the fifth for a young team that's making its Brier debut at the Enmax Centre. Skip Nathan Young and vice Sam Follett are both 19, a year younger than lead Ben Stringer and a year older than second Nathan Locke.
With Olympian Brad Gushue not in the provincial field due to the Winter Games schedule, Young's side took advantage and earned the N.L. berth with a victory over Greg Smith.
They played like veterans in a 7-5 victory over Yukon's Thomas Scoffin in their Brier round-robin opener Friday night. Three losses followed, including a 9-3 defeat to Wild Card Two's Matt Dunstone on Monday, but you wouldn't know it by the smiles on their faces.
Regardless of the results, the youngsters are soaking up the experience of taking on the country's top teams.
"Getting to play them, really up close, and seeing how many shots they really make is amazing," Young said.
Playing in front of 3,000 fans on opening night didn't faze the Newfoundland and Labrador team at all. They jumped out to a 5-1 lead and threw a solid 74 per cent in the victory.
"It has been a big learning curve," said Toby McDonald, who's serving as team coach with Jeff Thomas. "They're obviously a good team. They're kind of picking our brains dry. They're really interested in getting better."
Young skipped his side to an 8-5 record at the 2019 Canada Winter Games in Red Deer, Alta. They won silver last year at the world junior qualifier in Saskatoon and are building towards the upcoming Canadian under-21 playdowns in Stratford, Ont.
"We may be a young team here, but I don’t think we think of ourselves as being the teenagers at the Brier," Young said. "We think of ourselves as Team Newfoundland and Labrador and we're so excited to be here."
Codner made his debut on Saturday in a 14-3 loss to Koe. He made all four of his shots after coming on as a substitute in the seventh end.
"It's the first time I have experienced fans -- ever -- (while) curling," he said. "I have only curled in a curling club. It's pretty cool, I've got to say, when you're out there. Even if they're cheering on other sheets, the energy and the atmosphere is crazy."
In the evening draw, Wild Card Two's Matt Dunstone held on to beat Alberta's Koe, 8-6, to remain undefeated, Canada's Bottcher defeated Saskatchewan's Colton Flasch 8-6, Ontario's Glenn Howard squeaked past New Brunswick's James Grattan 5-4 and P.E.I.'s Tyler Smith defeated Newfoundland's Nathan Young.
"Obviously you think you're going to end up at the Brier someday but not this young," Codner said. "It has been amazing. We still have a few games left and it's going to be awesome to be playing against some of the best in the world."
Koe beat Scoffin 9-3 in the morning draw Bottcher beat Smith 11-4.
Flasch downed Grattan 8-4 in the other early game.
In afternoon play, Brad Gushue's Wild Card One team (4-0) remained unbeaten after an 8-3 win over Jamie Koe of the Northwest Territories.
Nova Scotia's Paul Flemming (3-0) kept his winning streak intact by holding off Wild Card Three's Jason Gunnlaugson 7-6 in an extra end. Northern Ontario's Brad Jacobs beat Quebec's Michael Fournier 6-1 and McEwen walloped Nunavut's Peter Mackey 18-1.
Competition continues through Sunday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 7, 2022.
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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: Corrects spelling of Nicholas