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Underdog Ticats look to spoil Grey Cup party in Riderville

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The Canadian Press
11/23/2013 6:42:05 PM
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REGINA -- Young, loose and happy to be here. The Hamilton Tiger-Cats go into the 101st Grey Cup with very little pressure and a lot of love.

A Hamilton team with 18 CFL rookies on the roster, without a stadium and sometimes hot water, has come a very long way this season.

Their journey has taken them all the way to Saskatchewan, where the predominant colour in winter is white but the locals bleed green. Rider Nation expects a lot from the Roughriders.

"Carrying the Weight of a Nation," was the headline in Saturday's Regina Leader-Post. City buses have been flashing "Go Riders Go" all week as they snake through the snowy roads.

The underdog Tiger-Cats are hoping to spoil the party. And their motivation has been ramped up by the Rider love-in this week, including the CFL awards show.

"Everything seemed like it was about Saskatchewan," said Hamilton linebacker Brandon Isaac, who won the Cup last year as an Argo. "That got a lot of guys fired up, got the blood boiling."

Added veteran quarterback Henry Burris: "At the awards show it was like 'Hey, welcome to history, history, history, history, history.' ... Of course they weren't talking about us and then all of a sudden it was like 'Hey. don't forget Hamilton is here."'

The Ticats understand they are in enemy territory but have nevertheless turned Rider Pride into a big chip on their black-and-gold shoulders. It has made for the ultimate us-against-the world scenario.

It's been that way all season.

While their new stadium is being built, the Ticats spent the year commuting to McMaster for practice and Guelph for games.

"For all the things that people said we couldn't overcome and all the different obstacles that have been thrown at us ... we should have just folded the tent and just went home before the season started," said Burris.

"We believed in ourselves, and the talent that we had in that (locker) room," he added. "All we had to do is really commit ourselves and sacrifice everything away from football and truly commit ourselves to making ourselves a better team."

Coach Kent Austin has little sympathy for issues like cold showers and other annoying byproducts of their nomadic season. That message has trickled down to his players.

"It's something you put up with," Austin said. "No big deal. Welcome to the game of life.

"We don't whine about things like that or make excuses."

Hamilton (10-8) started the season 1-4 but finished it on a 4-1 run, before adding two more victories in the post-season.

The hours spent on buses has made for a team that genuinely enjoys its own company.

"You enjoy coming to work every day," Isaac said of the team's relaxed vibe, " because you don't know what's going to happen but you know something good's going to happen."

Burris, one of several influential veterans on the team, demonstrated that when he broke into an Arnold Schwarzenegger imitation as he met the media after a short practice.

The Ticats spent no more than half a hour Saturday on the chilly Mosaic Stadium field where the temperature was minus-16 and felt like minus-25. The forecast is better for Sunday's kickoff at minus-three or four.

The frigid conditions this week were new to many of the Tiger-Cats and more than a few looked uncomfortable as they stepped out onto the frozen tundra earlier in the week.

Isaac, a native of South Carolina, called the frigid practice conditions "brutal" but said the team has dealt with it. Burris also noted that the Ticats had to play in plenty of cold, wet, windy and ugly conditions in Guelph.

"We faced it all. Through it all, we've trumped it and we found ways to achieve triumph through those situations. So our team has been mentally prepared for whatever Mother Nature has thrown at us."

And the 38-year-old Burris says that his young teammates understand that while cold is fleeting, a CFL championship is for ever.

"To see how the way our guys have embraced this moment. They truly understand that if this all it's going to take for us to win a championship, then hey we're all up for it."

Hamilton has weapons to get the job done.

Led by Burris (4,927 yards), the Tiger-Cats were second to Toronto in passing while rookie C.J. Gable (782 yards) was fourth in the league in rushing.

But Hamilton ranked sixth in scoring and gave up a league-high 65 sacks. And while Burris once played in Regina, Gable -- a California boy -- clearly is no fan of the cold.

The Tiger-Cat defence ranked fifth in the league in points yielded at 26.0 a game (Saskatchewan led at 22.1) and has a league-worst 35 sacks. It faces a Roughrider offence that ranked second in the league in scoring (519 points).

Hamilton has won the Grey Cup 15 times including eight as the Tiger-Cats. The last championship came in 1999 in a 32-21 win over Calgary at B.C. Place in Hamilton's last trip to the final.

The Tiger-Cats are poised to move into their new stadium next season and owner Bob Young says the team is headed to financial stability for the first time in 42 years.

A Grey Cup win would be a big shiny ribbon on that bow.

Austin, who preaches accountability but gives his players room to breathe, said his team understands there are many people depending on them Sunday.

"I told our players when you take the field, when you prepare during the week, you're not just doing it for your teammates ... it should matter to everybody that there's other people that it matters to.

"It doesn't matter where they're at in the organization, we have a lot of people counting on this going well. That should matter to you."



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