The Calgary Stampeders refuse to let a few injuries to key players dampen their enthusiasm heading into the CFL playoffs.
Calgary finished atop the CFL standings with a 14-4 record and earned the right to host the West Division final at McMahon Stadium on Nov. 17 against either the Saskatchewan Roughriders or the B.C. Lions.
In their final game of the regular season in Vancouver last Friday, the Stamps suffered a 26-7 setback to the Lions and also lost the services of three starters due to injury in the first half.
Defensive linemen Micah Johnson and Demonte Bolden both injured knee ligaments and receiver Marquay McDaniel sustained a high ankle sprain. With all three deemed unable to play in the West Final, the Stamps will count on other players to step up in their absence.
“That’s been our mindset all year,” said defensive tackle Junior Turner. “Guys have gone down and out and guys have filled in.”
Running back Jon Cornish, who was one of 10 Calgary players named to the CFL’s West Division all-star team on Wednesday, said that dealing with injuries is nothing new for the Stamps.
“We’re a team that played through all kinds of injuries last year and we came into this season virtually the same team,” said Cornish, who missed one game in the regular season with a thigh contusion. “We understood that people get hurt playing football, so I don’t ever think that we need to do any rallying. The next guy up did what they needed to do and they understood that they either did it right or they’re off the team.”
Calgary coach John Hufnagel said that Turner and Etienne Legare will be counted upon to anchor Calgary’s defensive line up the middle, while he’ll also consider activating Earl Okine and/or Oren Wilson from the practice roster.
“We brought Mr. Wilson in to see what he can provide for us,” Hufnagel said. “Earl Okine’s been here for a couple, three, four weeks. With Etienne Legare and Junior Turner we have enough men to fill the holes.”
Standing 6-foot-6 and weighing in at 286 pounds, Okine appears to have the physical stature to make an impact on defence for the Stamps.
“The CFL is a tough game and absolutely it’s a very fast-paced athletic game and it takes a lot of adjustment, but I’ve been here,” said Okine, while adding that he’s been waiting patiently for his opportunity. “I’ve been working very hard in practice, getting in with my defensive line, working very hard every day after practice and before practice.”
The Stamps received some good news on Wednesday as Joe West returned to the practice field after missing the past three games with a shoulder injury, while fellow receiver Brad Sinopoli is close to making his return from a concussion he sustained on Oct. 18 in Edmonton during Calgary’s 27-13 win over the Eskimos.
“Brad Sinopoli was back on the practice field doing a bit of individual work,” Hufnagel said. “He’ll do a little bit of contact work (Thursday), but everything looks like he’ll be able to make the game, so we’ll adjust accordingly with the players that we have.”
While the Stamps have suffered their fair share of injuries, quarterback Kevin Glenn said that they’ve had enough depth to plug those holes with capable replacements.
“It just seems like when a guy does go down, it’s another guy that’s coming back off of injury just to fill that spot,” Glenn said. “You don’t ever want to see that kind of stuff happen, but it just seems like for us it’s been happening at the right time that we’ve been losing a guy, but getting a guy back too.”
In the case of receiver Jeff Fuller, the Stamps benefited from a player who took advantage of making the most of his opportunity when it was given to him. Fuller signed with the Stamps on Sept. 14 and then spent four weeks on the practice roster before making four catches for 75 yards in his CFL debut on Oct. 18 against the Eskimos.
“A guy coming in so late like that and actually playing very well at the end of the year has been another help,” Glenn said.
Fuller followed up his impressive debut by making six catches for a team-leading 113 yards during a 29-25 win at home over the Riders on Oct. 26 before hauling in five passes for 66 yards in the season finale against the Lions.
“I’m definitely extremely excited about this next game coming up,” Fuller said. “It’s opportunities for other players to come in and make plays and make a run at this Grey Cup. I’m here now and I’m loving every minute of it and feel myself getting better. It’s just a blessing to be a part of such a great program.”
Thanks to their performance in the regular season, the Stamps have the benefit of an extra week to prepare to host the West Final.
“It’s unique, it’s beneficial and it’s welcoming,” Hufnagel said. “That’s why you work so hard during the regular season to try to finish first so you do have a bye week.”