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Penn Curling beat Villanova 42-17 in the Philadelphia College Classic (now in it's second year). Credit: Alex Remnick

Calling the event that pits the Penn club curling team against Villanova the ‘Philadelphia College Classic’ might be premature.

In its second annual installment, the slippery two-week bout for bragging rights — which Penn won this year — will have some way to go before fully living up to its title.

But with audiences turned towards the Winter Olympics, which bring weeks of unparalleled attention to the 500-year-old ice sport, curling is piquing the interests of sports fans nationwide.

“I always watched it on TV during the Olympics,” said junior Sam Sargent, vice president of the club team.

With the world fawning on curling only once every four years, a host of comparisons emerge that try to explain the unfamiliar sport.

“It’s like shuffleboard on ice, mixed with chess,” Sargent said.

“And a little housework,” added senior Jana Hirsch.

Sargent has been curling for just three years, the span of his time at Penn. He found the club team during NSO.

“I thought, ‘I have to at least try this,’” the Wharton junior said.

After trying curling — which, I can say from my afternoon with the team, is not as easy as it looks — Sargent decided to stick with it, but not just for the novelty of the sport.

Instead, it was the people on the club team that have brought him back out to Paoli, Pa., — the location of the only nearby curling sheet house — each Saturday for the last three years.

Sargent’s scenario is representative of most of the club in two ways.

Many of the curlers were spurred to throw their first stone after watching the Winter Olympics, and all of them came back because of the people.

Because the sport is basically a non-entity in Philadelphia, the club must travel to Paoli each weekend to the Philadelphia Curling Club, a white-washed shed about 15 minutes walking-distance from the SEPTA regional rail station.

“It’s a pain in the ass to get out to Paoli,” said senior Jana Hirsch. “But it makes my Saturdays special.”

With two 45-minute trips out and back along the Main Line each weekend (not to mention road trips to distant tournaments), the club has a lot of time to joke around.

And after spending just one afternoon with the Club last weekend, it’s eminently clear why: The Penn Club Curling team is a really fun bunch.

“Most teams take the game so seriously compared to us,” Hirsch said. “Two years ago [at a tournament] in Boston, the Yale team didn’t smile the entire time.”

Though the Bulldogs are the only Ivy curling competition Penn has found so far, there are dozens of curling clubs at schools across the nation. Sargent said the best teams are generally from the Midwest.

While Penn’s club team may not yet be able to hang with powerhouses like University of Minnesota, the 2009 National College Tournament top division champions, the team continues to compete and improve.

Throwing stones since 2006, the Penn curling team is finally hitting its stride — they placed third in the Great Lakes Regional Collegiate Curling Championship in Bowling Green, Ohio last month. It was the first time the club has placed in a major tournament.

“Once you get a taste of competing, you catch the bug real quick,” said club treasurer and Wharton sophomore Adam Swick.

Swick and the team were quick to put their abilities in perspective before they hit the ice Saturday.

“I’d say I’m bad, but relative to when I started, I’m fantastic,” he said.

When the club began the second day of competition against Villanova Saturday it was clear they had improved since last year’s inaugural faceoff.

While the Villanova players screamed and shouted their way to a loss (shouting commands to teammates is an integral part of the game), the Penn curlers decided to take a cooler route.

“We gotta get better at the yelling,” said junior Jeff Denis jokingly.

Most of the team is new to the sport and still learning the intricacies of the game, but some have been curling for years now.

Senior Catie MacKinlay has been curling in Paoli since fifth grade. She was introduced to the sport by her father, Canada native and Wharton Marketing professor Craig MacKinlay, who curled at his high school in Ontario.

Meanwhile, team president Dave Jacobson, a junior, started curling — also in Paoli — after the 2002 Olympics. He competed in the Philadelphia Curling Club’s junior program, which is the second largest in the Northeast, according to Club member and certified curling coach Eric Palmer.

Jacobson and the team will head back to nationals again this spring break. With their recent improvement, they’ll hope to top last year’s fifth-place finish out of eight teams in the bottom division.

While I left the Philadelphia Curling Classic Saturday with a bruised right pinky finger, some very numb toes, and an appreciation for one of winter’s most unique sports, the team left with one unanswered question: how they are going to fund engraving their names on the winner’s plaque.

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