November 24, 2010

Resilient Riders keep Grey Cup hopes alive


REGINA — When Jon Bon Jovi performed at Mosaic Stadium in July, he said the Saskatchewan Roughriders could use his band’s song “This is Our House” as their theme.

Perhaps he should have suggested his hit “Keep the Faith” instead.

The Roughriders entered the CFL playoffs in a slump, having lost four of their final five regular-season contests. But they rebounded by defeating the B.C. Lions in the West Division semifinal Nov. 14 and upsetting the Calgary Stampeders in Sunday’s West final to secure a berth in the Grey Cup.

The Riders knew some people had lost confidence in them. The semifinal against B.C. didn’t even sell out in Regina.

“When we went through a period where we were having difficulty even people in the province lost some hope and faith,” head coach Ken Miller said Monday. “But the men in the locker-room were able to put a shell around themselves and remain confident and do the things necessary to come out of that slump and play well and be able to achieve this goal.”

It was no easy feat.

Saskatchewan finished the regular season second in the West at 10-8. Calgary posted the CFL’s best record of 13-5.

The Stampeders led the West final 11-0 after the opening quarter and were able to shut down Andy Fantuz, the Riders’ biggest receiving threat. Fantuz was the CFL’s leading receiver this season with 87 catches for 1,380 receiving yards and six touchdowns.

But the Riders rallied to edge the Stampeders 20-16, punching their ticket to Sunday’s Grey Cup in Edmonton.

“I don’t even know if people in Saskatchewan gave us a chance two weeks ago,” said Fantuz.

“But we knew what we had in our locker-room all year long. You know, you go through ups and downs in the season and people lose faith but we never did. Coaches keep things in check and we have a lot of leadership and character on our team and it showed.”

Fellow Rider receiver Weston Dressler says the team knew it was better than the four-game losing streak at the end of the season suggested. He tried to ignore the criticism.

“Inside this locker-room, we don’t really listen to what the outside people are saying about our team or what we can or can’t do. We know what we’re capable of and we believe in each other so we don’t really listen to what people are saying outside,” said Dressler.

Dressler says the Riders have shown a resiliency throughout the year and will take that attitude into the Grey Cup against Montreal.

The Alouettes finished the regular season atop the East with a record of 12-6, second only to Calgary.

“When we’ve been down, we’ve still been able to fight back and win some close football games,” said Dressler. “You know if we are down, we’re not going to be too worried but obviously we’d rather be up throughout the game.”

Late Monday afternoon, Rider fans braved frigid cold to give the team a warm send off to the Grey Cup in Edmonton.

The temperature hovered around minus 20 and there were light flurries, but that didn’t discourage hundreds of people from attending a rally for the team. They cheered wildly for linebacker Jerrell Freeman, who fell on the football after a fumbled punt to preserve the win on Sunday.

Rider president and CEO Jim Hopson said the fan support has been amazing.

“I can’t tell you how much you’ve meant to us the last couple of weeks in particular, but always. The last two games have been incredible and our fans have really helped us get over the top,” Hopson told the crowd gathered outside Regina city hall.

“My association with this team goes back almost 40 years and I don’t think I’ve ever seen more pride, more enthusiasm, more passion in the province than I have right now,” said Hopson.

Riders centre Jeremy O’Day told the crowd that the players don’t take the fans for granted.

“We really appreciate what you do for us and we’re hoping to do something special for you in return,” said O’Day.

“For us, this 2010 season started at the end of last year’s game and we focused in and we said ‘Let’s get back to it next year.’ We knew coming into this season that it wasn’t going to be ‘a gimmie.’ Last year, we earned the right to go to the Grey Cup and we knew we had to earn the right this year,” said O’Day.

The Roughriders last won the Grey Cup in 2007, when they beat the Winnipeg Blue Bombers 23-19 in Toronto.

Sunday’s game will be a rematch of last year’s dramatic championship when Montreal kicked a field goal with no time left on the clock to beat Saskatchewan 28-27. Miller says they’ve put that in their “rear-view mirror.”

Asked what he would say to naysayers or those who tossed around criticism, Miller replied: “I wouldn’t say anything except ‘Welcome back.”‘