Johnson: Stamps head into the stretch drive
With six games left, Calgary could still finish first or last in the wild West
Calgary Stampeders wide receiver Romby Bryant completes a two point convert with pressure from Saskatchewan Roughriders defensive back Milt Collins on Sunday in Regina. The Stamps have six games remaining on the season in which to prove what kind of team they are.
Photograph by: Liam Richards, THE CANADIAN PRESS
We’ve reached the equivalent of Harry Caray having just warbled the closing notes of ‘Take me out to the ball game’ during a seventh-inning stretch at Wrigley. The final turn and pounding down the backstretch towards the finish line at Pimlico.
Pushing out of the corner as sound of the bell entering the litmus-test rounds, 10 through 15, of a heavyweight title bout drags the fighters back into the centre of the ring. That last taxing push after the punishing 200.5-km Pinerolo to Galibier Serre-Chevalier stage of the Tour de France, on the way to the Champs Elysees.
Two-thirds of a season gone. Six games remain.
Edging into October.
All to play for. Much left to sort out.
“Since I’ve been here, every season it always comes down to these last few games,” says Calgary Stampeders’ linebacker Malik Jackson, towel draped over his head to ward off a spitting rain descending on McMahon Stadium on Monday late afternoon. “Always. Never fails. All the games count, but this is when it REALLY counts.
“What you do during the bulk of season, all the work until now, carries over . . . building the character of your team, winning games late, battling back. That mentality. So you might be in a playoff game, in a tough spot, or in a game to clinch home-field advantage in the playoffs, and those games you’ve played until now sets you up to deal with whatever situations you’re faced with.”
Four points separate the 7-5 Stamps from the West pace-setting B.C. Lions, while an identical four distances them from the fruit-cellar-dwelling Eskimos.
They find themselves balanced precariously on a knife’s edge.
“Finish strong. That’s the nature of this league,” lectures cornerback Keon Raymond. “You want to hit your peak heading into the playoffs. How many times has that been proven to be the winning recipe in the past?
“It’s gonna come down to the team that’s best prepared. You’re playing guys, teams, three or four times, so the team that knows its opponent best is the one that has the upper hand. Guys are going to have the intensity at this time of year. That’s a given. But preparation now, at this stage, is what can give you the separation you need.”
Friday, the desperate Edmonton Eskimos pay their second visit in a less than month. And once again the quarterback spot is the focal point. Could be Kerry Joseph lining up for a third consecutive start against the Stamps? Might be Steven Jyles. The whispers are growing now that Eastern Washington alum Matt Nichols just might be handed the assignment.
Given the carnival uncertainty of the situation, Tom Wilkinson, ol’ Groceries, can’t apparently be entirely counted out to pop up behind centre, either.
“I hope they start (Fred) Stamps at quarterback!” howls middle linebacker Juwan Simpson. “That’s what I hope.”
“Whatever quarterback they decide on, they’ll be competitive,” promises safety Eric Fraser. “Joseph, obviously, got them close the two times we played them. Steven Jyles has solid credentials. And Nichols played well in pre-season. I don’t think they’ll be changing the offence too much regardless of who it is.
“Obviously it was a disappointing setback, to lose that game in Saskatchewan. But we’ve got to re-focus on the short week and pick up where we left off before. Everything’s tight. Getting that third win against Edmonton is so important. Taking the tiebreaker against the Eskimos and Saskatchewan helps us.
“We’ve had a lot going on, faced some adversity to to get to this point. We’re pretty well placed. In the big picture we’re still in the mix. We’re still looking good.”
While nothing is a certainly, the Leos, given their personnel and pedigree, do seem poised to snare first place out the West and a bye into the division final. First-year head coach Mike Benevides’ bunch isn’t slappin’ anyone silly at the moment, but has nevertheless found ways to grind out late dramatics on the strength of a stifling defence and quarterback Travis Lulay’s savvy.
“Hey man, we want to finish on top, too,” Simpson protests with mock indignation. “We’ve got six games left. And two of them against B.C., remember. So of course we’re aiming at first place.
“But whatever happens, first or not, home playoff game or not, the aim is to be playing well, to feel confident in ourselves and what we’re doing, as we get into the snow and the cold in November.
“And these last six games are so important in helping you lay the foundation to do just that.”
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at email@example.com
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