- Free Agency
EDMONTON — The Battle of Alberta opens up a new chapter on Sunday night, as the Edmonton Eskimos entertain the Calgary Stampeders in pre-season play at Commonwealth Stadium.
For the Eskimos, it’s their first taste of pre-season as they become the ninth and final team to play in the opening week of exhibition play. The Stampeders, meanwhile, are coming off a narrow 23-18 win over the BC Lions, in which several key starters didn’t suit up including last year’s Most Outstanding Player.
On Sunday, fans will get to see the starters from both teams, including premiere quarterbacks Mike Reilly and Bo Levi Mitchell. Both pivots are excited to see their first action of 2017.
“I’m ready for it to get here and I’ve been talking to the guys getting hyped up and we’re ready to go,” said Mitchell.
“Longest camp I’ve been in before the first game,” added Reilly, referring to the late start for the Green and Gold. “It’s been good though, we’ve gotten a lot of work out of it and now we’ll see the fruits of our labour when we get to go out on the field.”
Reilly isn’t the only Eskimo excited to get into game action on Sunday. It’s been a six and a half month wait since falling to the Ottawa REDBLACKS in the Eastern Final and, despite a busy off-season, the group lining up to start on Sunday will be mostly familiar to Eskimos fans.
Vidal Hazelton is the relative newcomer to the offence as he steps into Derel Walker’s spot and will start on Sunday, while Adarius Bowman, John White, Brandon Zylstra, Chris Getzlaf and the rest of the Esks’ projected starting O-line are expected to play.
On Friday, nearly two weeks into camp, offensive lineman Tony Washington received an early dismissal from practice as things got heated. The practice ended with a one-sided discussion between Maas and his players. You can guess which side Maas was on.
“At the end of the day it was 18 practices straight,” said Maas. “Our group is fired up, ready to play, ready to hit somebody else. We look to be a very disciplined, fast, aggressive team and in order to do that in practice, you’ve got to stay on the edge all the time. I think that’s what we did, we just went over the edge a little bit.”
It was the first time, Maas added, that he’s ever had to kick someone out of practice as Maas preached a fine line between playing on the edge and being disciplined.
Travon Van will make his Eskimos debut after signing from Ottawa as a free agent while Shamawd Chambers, who’s out with what’s reported to be a hamstring injury, will have to wait at least another week.
Maas wouldn’t specify how long Reilly or the rest of the Eskimos’ first-teamers are expected to play. In that sense, Sunday’s matchup could feel like a true Battle of Alberta out there as the Stamps get their starters some playing time as well.
“That first series, that first quarter, however long that goes, it’ll be just like the Battle of Alberta,” said Maas. “From there it’s finding guys that are new to our system on both sides and who can fit in, who can play and perform under the lights.
“That’s what training camp and pre-season games are all about, molding your team and finding the right guys. I’m hoping the whole game is like the Battle of Alberta — it’s fast, physical football when we play against one another.”
After a five-day layoff, the Stampeders will become the first team to wrap up their pre-season schedule on Sunday night. Along with the starting quarterback Mitchell, Charleston Hughes, Marquay McDaniel, Jerome Messam and Alex Singleton will also be making their 2017 debuts.
Jacobi Green scored a 35-yard touchdown, Derek Wiggan recovered a fumble in the end zone and Mitchell Gale threw a touchdown pass to Reggie Begelton, pacing the Red and White to a pre-season opening victory at McMahon Stadium earlier this week. While the Lions made a late surge, a third down stop by the Stampeder defence preserved the victory.
Unlike on Tuesday, the Stamps’ starting lineup should closely resemble that taking the field on June 23 in the 2017 season-opener in Ottawa.
For Mitchell and those other starters making their debut, it’s been a long wait for game action since falling in overtime of the Grey Cup last November.
“We’ll try not to get too hyped too early and you don’t want to come out there and overshoot your guns,” said Mitchell. “We’re going to go out there and just be smart and be smart with the football and make sure we’re moving it.
“(We want to) have a good offence, move the chains and hopefully put up a lot of points.”
While a win is always nice, Head Coach Dave Dickenson has some additional objectives for Sunday’s clash in advance of the league-mandated deadline for teams to finalize their 46-man rosters on Saturday, June 17.
“I’m not worried about anything more than executing our jobs, being sharp, looking like we’re a well-coached team, (being) organized, and (keeping) penalties down,” Dickenson listed off. “Those are the things I’m looking for.”
In their five most recent pre-season duels, Calgary has defeated its provincial rival on four occasions. The Stampeders and Eskimos met two times during the 2016 regular season and the Stampeders won both matchups – the Labour Day Classic at McMahon as well as the subsequent rematch at Commonwealth later that same week.
Come the regular season, the Alberta rivals will square off in the annual early-September home-and-home series before a third showdown taking place on Saturday, Oct. 28 back in Edmonton.
Kickoff is slated for 7 p.m. ET and can be seen live via TSN or ESPN3 as well as followed online via CFL.ca Game Tracker.
With files from Max Campbell/Stampeders.com and Esks.com