It almost seems as if the Canadian Football League schedule maker was reading the minds of the B.C. Lions’ players.
The league has the Lions in Calgary to open their 2013 regular season on June 28. That game comes seven months after the Stampeders spoiled the party at B.C. Place Stadium in last November’s western final.
Although not exactly a rematch—because there isn’t nearly as much on the line this time around—the season opener should come with an added layer of motivation for the Leos: a chance to kick off their schedule with a first-week victory against the team that dashed their Grey Cup dreams. And given that the Lions and Stampeders appear set to battle for top spot in the west as they did a year ago, games against divisional rivals come with added significance.
“We’ll remember a lot of the good things we did in the regular season last year, but the disappointment that came in the playoffs really made for a great sense of urgency among the players,” quarterback Travis Lulay told the Georgia Straight in a preseason interview at the Lions’ practice facility in Surrey. “This is a competitive league, and I think we hold ourselves to a higher standard in this organization, so to come up short in the playoffs was tough, but we have to find a way to move on and push forward.”
As there is every year in the CFL, there have been changes to the Lions’ roster. Most notably, Geroy Simon, the face of the franchise for the better part of the past decade and the CFL’s all-time leader in receiving yards, now plays for Saskatchewan. Another pass catcher, Arland Bruce, has found a new home in Montreal. And on defence, the team made difficult decisions to part with veterans Khalif Mitchell and Byron Parker.
But there is plenty of optimism in the Lions Den in the organization’s 60th season of existence. With 18,000 season tickets sold, the team is confident the group it has assembled will play an exciting brand of football. Led by Lulay, the Lions offence boasts star running back Andrew Harris and a young and talented group of receivers that the club feels strongly will become household names as the season progresses.
The strength of the football squad, however, is its defence—particularly at linebacker, where the Lions are built around the trio of Solomon Elimimian, Adam Bighill, and Anton McKenzie. There’s no team in the league that can match the skill and athleticism the Lions have in the middle of their defence.
Those three are surrounded by veterans Keron Williams, Korey Banks, Dante Marsh, and Ryan Phillips, and the Lions feel they’ve been able to bolster the defensive secondary with the addition of former NFLers Cordelius Parks and Joshua Bell, who have earned starting positions on this year’s team.
“The defence is full of playmakers; they know what it takes to win and they find a way to get the most out of themselves,” said head coach Mike Benevides, starting his second year at the helm. “I expect big things out of them. You’ve got explosive, dominant, tough players who make plays, whether it’s on the quarterback against the pass or the run. They’re going to be extremely dynamic and used in multiple ways, and that’s going to be great for us to have.”
On the surface, it appears the Lions have the talent to match last year’s record of 13-5. But as they found out the hard way, football teams are only as good as their last game—and the Lions’ last one wasn’t good enough.
The team has spent the off-season trying to figure out where it went wrong in its lone playoff game and trying to address weaknesses the Stampeders exploited in the playoffs. Areas of concern heading into the season include depth along the offensive line and strength at safety.
The hard work to address those needs began in training camp in Kamloops in early June, and the Lions want to continue to improve as the season unfolds. The goal is to win the division again and hope to be ready when the western final rolls around again.
The Lions see themselves as Grey Cup contenders and have every intention of playing in the big game in Regina on November 24.
“You have to be critical of yourself,” Lulay said of learning from past mistakes. “You have to look at films and see what teams did well against us and where did we come up short. But we also have to recognize what we did well and how we expand on that. This organization takes a lot of pride in how we play and how we play at home, and I think the guys are really excited to make amends. We lost that last game we played at home, but other than that, since we’ve come back to B.C. Place, it’s been a hugely successful place for us, the fans have been great, and we want to continue to make that a place that’s tough for opponents to play. So we’re really excited to get 2013 underway.”
And they’re really fired up to get the season started against the Stamps.
They can’t go back in time and get a second chance at the western final, but they can set the tone for the season ahead with a victory over Calgary. And that’s exactly what they plan to do.
All teams feel good about themselves coming out of training camp and starting a new season. But based on their personnel, the Lions have every reason to believe they’re among the CFL’s best.
The time for talk is over, though, and now they get the chance to start proving their worth.