OMAHA — John Shuster has been through this before. Four years ago, his team lost the first game of the finals at the U.S. Olympic curling trials, then won the next two to earn a place at the Pyeongchang Winter Games.
The Chisholm native found himself back in familiar territory Friday, when his squad opened the best-of-three Olympic trials finals with an 8-4 loss to Team Korey Dropkin at Baxter Arena. On a night when Shuster's team struggled to make shots, Dropkin's was nearly flawless, stealing two points in the opening end and controlling the match from start to finish. That put Dropkin, of Duluth, one victory away from claiming a berth at next February's Beijing Olympics — and left Shuster, the 2018 Olympic gold medalist, on the brink of elimination.
In the first match of a women's final between two Minnesota-based teams, Team Tabitha Peterson, bronze medalists at the world championships earlier this year, defeated Team Cory Christensen 8-7. Game 2 of both finals is Saturday, with a third game Sunday if necessary.
A four-time Olympian, Shuster has pulled off dramatic escapes before, including his rally at the trials finals in 2017 and his late dash to Olympic gold. Dropkin has seen it often enough to take nothing for granted, even as his own team roared to its fifth consecutive victory.
"[Saturday], Shuster's going to come back,'' said Dropkin, 26. "We've got to be sharp. But I think we played really well, and I think we've got a lot more left in us.''
Dropkin's team, nicknamed the "Young Bucks,'' includes two-time Olympian Joe Polo, 38, of Duluth; Mark Fenner, 26, of Bemidji; and Tom Howell, 27, of Milwaukee. Friday's victory in eight ends was its second in a row over Team Shuster, which went 9-1 in the round robin. Shuster's team includes two other 2018 Olympians, John Landsteiner of Duluth and Matt Hamilton of McFarland, Wis., and Chris Plys of Duluth.
The defending champions never got on track Friday. In the first end, Shuster's final shot clipped a guard and veered off course, leaving two Dropkin stones untouched for a steal of two points. In the third end, Shuster's last shot stopped short, allowing Dropkin to seize three points and a 5-1 lead.
Shuster had a chance to draw for two points in the fourth end, but he got only one when his stone failed to travel far enough. Team Dropkin added three more points in the seventh end, and Shuster conceded after the eighth.
In the women's match, Team Christensen overcame an early 3-0 deficit, scoring three in a stellar fifth end for a 5-4 advantage. Peterson's squad, which includes several 2018 Olympians, came right back with three in the sixth end to move ahead 7-5. The teams traded points in the next two ends, with Peterson leading 8-6 after eight.
In 2017, Dropkin was on the team that ultimately lost to Shuster in the finals. To avoid a repeat, he said his team needs to enjoy the moment and stick together.
Shuster, trying to reach his fifth consecutive Olympics, will rely on his experience in tight situations.
"We've all been in this position,'' he said. "A lot of times, we battle our hardest when our backs are against the wall.''