Ontario skip Rachel Homan admits she didn't think she was capable of winning the Scotties Tournament of Hearts in her debut appearance in 2011.
She made the playoffs that year in Charlottetown but lost the bronze-medal game. Homan's mindset has changed now that she has returned to the national women's curling championship.
She feels she belongs in the mix with the elite rinks and has what it takes to play for the title on Sunday.
"I think we're just as good as any team here now," Homan said. "I think we're ready and I think we've shown that this season as well."
The 23-year-old skip from the Ottawa Curling Club is backing up her words. The momentum from a strong campaign has carried over to the nationals, where Homan improved to 7-0 on Wednesday after an 8-2 rout of Saskatchewan's Jill Shumay.
"She's a superstar and she will be a superstar," said Nova Scotia vice-skip Colleen Jones. "She's so intense, so driven, so good, that it's amazing."
Homan is tied for first place with Manitoba's Jennifer Jones, who beat Heather Nedohin 8-5 to knock the Team Canada skip from the unbeaten ranks.
Prepared to take next step
Homan's teammates are also in their mid-20's but they have been together for 12 years. She feels they're prepared to take the next step.
"Honestly, it's experience," she said. "You can't fast-track that."
Her rink won the national junior title in 2010 and took the silver at the world junior championships that year. The Ontario team sits third in the Canadian Team Ranking System this season.
Homan's side is aggressive but steady on the ice and the mileage from the last few seasons is evident. They appear to have that look of a rink that truly belongs at the top level.
New Brunswick skip Andrea Crawford said Homan exudes confidence on the ice.
"That plays a big role in your performance," Crawford said. "It doesn't seem like there's a whole lot that shakes her."
Homan has also been buoyed by the friendly crowd at the K-Rock Centre, which is about a two-hour drive from her home club in Ottawa. She'll get a stiff test Thursday when she meets Jones in a battle of undefeated rinks.
"I think maybe two more wins and we might be in the 1-2 [playoff] game," Homan said of her goal for the round robin. "That's where we'd like to be at the end of the week. It's where we were at provincials and we like that spot.
"Hopefully we can get there at nationals, it would be amazing."
Homan added that her squad of third Emma Miskew, second Alison Kreviazuk and lead Lisa Weagle will keep using the same strategy. So expect plenty of rocks in play and big shot attempts when the opportunities present themselves.
"We know each other really well," Homan said. "We know what needs to be said and what we need on the ice and off the ice. We're just really good friends.
"We try to make it as fun as we can out there."
Jones her usual consistent self
Jones, meanwhile, has been her usual consistent self this week. The veteran Manitoba skip used her final shot in the 10th end to tap a Nedohin stone off the button to score a pair.
"We needed to make some big shots and we made them," Jones said. "That's always a confidence booster. It's always great to have to make a last shot to win.
"It was a really good team shot. The girls swept it and we made it and it feels great going into tomorrow."
Nedohin's side missed a few shots early on but pulled to within one with a deuce in the ninth end.
"She had to make her last shot," Nedohin said. "That's a pretty good game."
Nedohin is alone in third place at 6-1. The top three rinks were off for the evening draw.
The tournament is past the midway point and teams are starting to think about potential playoff positioning. Jones and Homan are in good shape as it will likely take at least seven wins to be in the mix this weekend.
"It's nice to get that seventh win and it knocks [Saskatchewan] down with another loss so there's a little bit more separation," Homan said.
B.C.'s Kelly Scott pulled out a 9-8 win over Prince Edward Island's Suzanne Birt on Wednesday night to move into a tie for fourth place with Shumay at 4-3.
Crawford beat Allison Ross of Quebec 8-4 to move into a tie with Birt at 4-4. Nova Scotia's Mary-Anne Arsenault posted a 7-6 win over Stacie Devereaux of Newfoundland and Labrador to improve to 3-4.
Alberta skip Kristie Moore (1-6) beat Kerry Galusha of Northwest Territories/Yukon 9-3 for her first win of the tournament. Galusha and Devereaux are in the basement at 1-7.
The playoffs begin Saturday. The tournament winner will represent Canada at the world women's curling championship next month in Riga, Latvia.