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Ticats relish the opportunity to end lengthy Grey Cup drought at Tim Hortons Field

·6 min read

Much of the sting might be gone, but Brandon Banks will draw upon the pain of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats' 2019 Grey Cup loss when the CFL finally resumes play.

Banks and the Ticats will kick off the '21 season visiting the Winnipeg Blue Bombers on Thursday night. The teams met in the last CFL game played, that being the Bombers' dominant 33-12 win in the 2019 Grey Cup game.

And before the opening kickoff, Winnipeg will unfurl its Grey Cup banner, giving its fans one last chance to celebrate the franchise's first CFL title since 1990.

"They deserve that, that was a good team in 2019," Banks said during a recent video conference. "Obviously I'll use it as a little bit of motivation but at the end of the day that's a football game."

Winnipeg put a huge damper on a stellar '19 season for Hamilton. The Ticats won a club-record 15 regular-season games to finish atop the East Division, then advanced to the Grey Cup with a solid 36-16 win over Edmonton in the conference final.

Banks, who led the CFL in receiving with a club-record 112 catches for 1,550 yards and 13 TDs, was named the league's most outstanding player. Other Ticats to receive post-season honours were Chris Van Zeyl (lineman), Frankie Williams (special-teams) and Orlondo Steinauer (coach).

But that seems long ago, as the CFL cancelled its plans for a 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I feel like a little kid at a candy store, I'm so excited," Banks said about the prospect of playing football again. "This is what I do, I wake up to play football, I think about that every day.

"With a game on the schedule now, I'm just excited and preparing my mind. I can't wait to get out there and hear the fans and just be in a football atmosphere."

Even if it's before a partisan Blue Bombers gathering.

"They have one of the best fanbases in the CFL so it's going to be a tough atmosphere to go out and execute," Banks said. "Hopefully we can go out there and shut them up real quick so they won't be as loud on offence."

Hamilton hasn't won a Grey Cup title since 1999, and the Ticats have a huge incentive to end that drought as the '21 CFL championship game will be held Dec. 12 at Tim Hortons Field.

Banks and the Ticats will be road warriors to open the season. Hamilton will play its first three games in Winnipeg, Regina and Montreal before hosting Toronto on Labour Day to open a home-and-home series between the longtime rivals.

Veteran Jeremiah Masoli will open as Hamilton's starting quarterback. He and Dane Evans competed for the No. 1 job in training camp after both saw action in 2019.

Masoli staked Hamilton to a 5-1 record to open the campaign before sustaining a season-ending knee injury. Evans stepped in and won nine of his 11 regular-season starts and led the Ticats to the Grey Cup.

The five-foot-10, 228-pound Masoli had been the starter since midway through the 2016 campaign. He had completed 125-of-175 passes (71.4 per cent) for 1,576 yards with nine touchdowns and seven interceptions while adding 79 rushing yards on 14 carries (4.5-yard average) with four touchdowns before being injured.

Hamilton's offence didn't skip a beat under Evans, who before last season had just one CFL start under his belt. The six-foot-one, 218-pound Evans completed 298-of-413 passes (72.1 per cent) for 3,754 yards with 21 touchdowns and 13 interceptions while rushing for 161 yards on 34 carries (4.7-yard average) with three touchdowns in 2019.

"It was extremely close," Steinauer said. "The only reason a decision was made is a decision had to be made.

"I'm very comfortable with both quarterbacks. I do think it's going to take both of them to get the goal that we all want done."

Hamilton will head into its season opener very short-handed. Defensive back Tunde Adeleke (hamstring), tight end Jake Burt (unspecified), Van Zeyl (thumb) and defensive lineman Ted Laurent (knee) on the one-game injured list while receivers DeVier Posey (calf) and Bralon Addison (knee) were placed on the six-game list.

Simoni Lawrence returns to anchor a solid Hamilton defence. The colourful linebacker had a CFL-high 98 tackles in 2019 and was the East Division's top defensive player.

The Ticats' linebacking corps also includes Jovan Santos-Knox, who's entering his fourth CFL season but first in Hamilton. The six-foot-two, 233-pound Santos-Knox played previously with Winnipeg (2017-18) and Edmonton (2019).

Even minus Laurent, a two-time CFL all-star, Hamilton will field a solid defensive line that includes Ja'Gared Davis (team-high 13 sacks in 2019), Dylan Wynn (career-best 11 sacks) and Julian Howsare (six sacks).

Hamilton will feature some new faces on special teams. American Taylor Bertolet will handle kicking duties while Australian Joel Whitford is the team's punter. Canadian Gordon Whyte, a 2019 draft pick out of St. Francis Xavier is the long-snapper.

All three are in their first CFL seasons.

And for the first time in almost two years, Banks is happy to be getting back into the routine of a football season, even if at age 33 he admits he might've lost a step.

"It's been a long time without playing a real game ... it's been tough," Banks said. "Obviously our last taste of a real game didn't go our way so I'm very very anxious to get back out there, especially against the last opponent we played.

"I'm a little bit older now, I'm going to slow down a little bit. But remember this: I'm just faster than anybody chasing me."

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats visit the Winnipeg Blue Bombers to open the 2021 CFL season on Thursday night. Some facts:

General manager: Drew Allemang and Shawn Burke enter their first season sharing the senior director of player personnel, co-manager of football operations title.

Head coach: Orlondo Steinauer (second season).

2019: Posted 15-3 record to finish first in East Division; lost 33-12 to Winnipeg in Grey Cup.

Home Field: Tim Hortons Field (capacity 23,218)

Additions: TE Jake Burt, WR Bralon Addison, LB Jovan Santos-Knox, K Taylor Bertolet, P Joel Whitford.

Departures: OL Mike Filer, DB Courtney Stephen, K Lirim Hajrullahu, LB Larry Dean, DBs Patrick Levels and Rico Murray.

Players to watch: QB Jeremiah Masoli, WRs Addison and Brandon Banks, DLs Ja'Gared Davis and Dylan Wynne, LB Simoni Lawrence.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 4, 2021.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press

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