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VANCOUVER — The BC Lions and Calgary Stampeders aim to head into the regular season with plenty of momentum, as they meet for their final pre-season game on Friday night at BC Place.
Don’t tell either of these teams that it’s ‘just pre-season’, because both have their sights set on finishing 2-0 and approaching the regular season with a full head of steam, while also putting the finishing touches on the roster that’ll carry them through 2014 against a scrappy West Division.
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For third-year Head Coach Mike Benevides and his Lions, Friday night is about setting the tone in front of the team’s home fans for the first time this season in a setting he quite enjoys.
“Any time you can play in front of your fans it’s tremendously exciting,” Benevides told BCLions.com. “BC Place is the greatest stadium in this country, it always feels comfortable, it always feels really energetic with all the orange.”
The Lions entered last season as one of the Grey Cup favourites but couldn’t overcome an injury to star quarterback Travis Lulay en-route to a third-place finish.
The problem certainly wasn’t with BC Place, where the Lions lost just once.
“There’s a reason we win all the time when we’re at home and that’s because of our fans,” Benevides continued. “It’s our house and we’re going to make it extremely hard for people to come into our place and try and find a victory.”
“It’s exciting to get back there and play in front of our fans, even though it’s a pre-season game it’s very important for our football team and our club.”
In a year when big things are expected with the Grey Cup being held in Vancouver in just five months’ time, similar success at home this season would go a long way.
Outside of changes at both coordinator positions and the addition of veteran pivot Kevin Glenn to backup Lulay, not a lot has changed for the Lions since they fell in the first round of the playoffs against the Roughriders.
And while those very same Riders deal with several key losses from a Grey Cup-winning team, the Lions find strength in continuity. With another season to gel and hopefully a healthy Lulay, they’re a team now focused on finding its 2011 form when they captured their last Grey Cup, also on home turf.
That’s why even though it’s pre-season, Friday’s game is so important – because this is where it all starts. It’s where, as Andrew Harris pointed out, the finished product takes place.
“It’s for real now, the last pre-season game you’re gonna get more reps in and it feels like a day-to-day week now, like a season week,” said Harris, a National who rushed for 998 yards and seven touchdowns last season.
Benevides, meanwhile, is excited to get that raucous BC crowd behind the team with what he expects to be an exciting style of play.
“I think our fans are really going to find a team that plays a fast game, really plays an exciting type of brand of football and I think they’re going to find a very physical, tough team – a team that cares about each other and a staff that’s going to put them in a position to succeed.”
The Lions earned a thrilling 14-11 comeback win over the Eskimos in their pre-season opener, against the very same team they’ll host in their season opener on June 28th. Lulay’s status for both the pre-season finale and the first regular season game remains unknown, although he’s expected to participate in warm-ups on Friday.
As much as the Lions have to prove with their pre-season finale, the Stampeders also hope to answer some questions with Friday night’s game with one in particular: who will be the team’s starting quarterback for the season opener against Montreal?
The two Texans in Bo Levi Mitchell and Drew Tate are vying for the coveted number one spot and so far through all of training camp and last week’s 23-20 win over Winnipeg neither has created any separation.
“It’s pretty even right now, and I expect it to be,” Head Coach and General Manager John Hufnagel told Stampeders.com. “They’re both doing very, very well.”
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For a team that had a CFL-best 14 wins last season and expected to contend for the championship this year, having two potentially-elite quarterbacks to complement so many other dangerous weapons on each side of the ball is a pretty good problem to have.
In last week’s win each quarterback led one first-quarter scoring drive to put the Stamps in front 14-0, before making way to backup quarterbacks Bryant Moniz and Rusty Smith. They relinquished the lead in the third quarter, but thanks to a clutch interception in the red zone and a big completion downfield by Smith, Calgary pulled out the win on a last-play field goal by Tyler Crapigna.
“We got an opportunity to see a lot of players play, there were some plays made out there, it was a little sloppy, especially on the penalty side of it, Hufnagel concluded following the game.
“I thought we started off strong on both sides of the football, and then when we started to mix and match it was tough to get our rhythm.”
“Winnipeg played hard throughout the whole game and it got crazy at the end, we made some plays to win the game.”
While Mitchell and Tate battle it out for quarterback supremacy, perhaps most promising for the Stampeders is the return of Nik Lewis. Lewis was sidelined since last August after sustaining a season-ending injury and in his return last weekend made a pair of first-half catches.
“For me it’s special, the first time in 10 months so I just enjoyed myself being back on the field,” said Lewis. “I enjoyed myself on the field and it was good – I’m glad we went out there and got the victory.”
The Stamps were also led last weekend by a combined 103 first-half rushing yards from Jon Cornish and Jock Sanders, a running back duo you can expect to wreak havoc throughout this season. But on Friday, all of the attention will be on whoever’s under centre.
Kickoff is at 10:00 P.M. ET, and can be seen live on TSN.