Skip shuffle gives U.S. team first win

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By Jeffrey Jones

VANCOUVER (Reuters) - The U.S. men's curling team won its first game of the Olympics on Friday after benching its captain, who floundered in four previous losses, in favor of a young, skateboarding alternate.

The team replaced skip John Shuster, a bronze medalist in Turin four years ago, with Chris Plys, and the change ignited the foursome to a 4-3 victory over France.

U.S. coach Phill Drobnick said it was a difficult decision to sit the veteran Shuster, but one he had to make with the team in dire straits in the round robin tournament. Even with the win, the Americans are long shots for medals.

Shuster had missed on a number of rocks some considered easy shots that would have sealed wins.

"Any time someone has to come into the lineup, any time someone has to move out of the lineup, it's a tough decision, but it is a decision that when you take the job as a coach you have to make," Drobnick told reporters.

He and his staff will now decide on the roster before each game, he said.

Shuster was gracious, saying that ending the losing streak was most important for the team, which came to Vancouver on a wave of publicity and celebrity endorsements.

"Obviously, every athlete wants to be in the game, but I was back there in full support of my team mates and I went out there in the fifth-end break and encouraged Chris and let him know he was doing a good job calling the game," Shuster said.

He said he was a bit surprised at getting the nod.

"It was a little hard to step on the ice and be at the top of my game," he said. "I'm a little rusty, but minus that, in the last three ends me and Jason (Smith) made a lot of clutch shots."

In another attempt at a boost, the team's honorary skip, Vernon Davis, tight end for the National Football League's San Francisco 49ers, was at the Vancouver Olympic Center to offer moral support. It didn't hurt.

"You know, I think I am a good luck charm," the Pro Bowler and fledgling curling buff said. He equated the roster change to replacing a quarterback when a football team is struggling, and said he was impressed with Shuster's grace.

"What guys should know is always be thankful and appreciate the next guy and believe in him, because you always got to have two guys," Davis said. "If things aren't working out for the first guy then the second guy should be able to step in and make things happen."

The drought also ended for the U.S. women's team led by Debbie McCormick, who beat Russia to lift their record to 1-3.

(Editing by Frank Pingue)