Lions claw into playoffs

A horrible 1-7 start to the season is history for the B.C. Lions. It’s the future they are focused on now.

Paul McCallum kicked the B.C. Lions into the playoffs with a 23-21 win in Hamilton.

Paul McCallum kicked the B.C. Lions into the playoffs with a 23-21 win in Hamilton.

SURREY, B.C. — A horrible 1-7 start to the season is history for the B.C. Lions.

It’s the future they are focused on now.

A team that flirted with disaster midway through the season is headed to the CFL West semifinal against the Saskatchewan Roughriders next weekend at Mosaic Stadium.

Wide receiver Emmanuel Arceneaux said the Lions, who ended the regular season with three consecutive wins in can’t-lose games, are like a rumbling freight train.

“I have a sense momentum is building,” said the soft-spoken Arceneaux, one of a handful of players at the Lions practice facility Sunday. “This B.C. team is dangerous right now. If we just keep focused and finish and execute, there is a lot that can be done.

“We have put those first six or seven games behind us, like they never existed.”

The Lions (8-10) will have little time to savour finishing third in the West and making the playoffs for the 14th consecutive season. The players have Monday off, then it’s back to practice on Tuesday.

“What you do is deflate,” said a weary looking Wally Buono, the Lions coach and general manager. “You need to get through your emotions of the last 10, 11 weeks.

“Then you need to regroup. Now is a whole new season for everybody. This football team is battle ready. It’s won a lot of big games on the road against some very good teams. It should be ready for what’s ahead.”

Saturday was a long, tense day for the Lions.

It began with B.C. battling from behind to defeat the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 23-21 at Ivor Wynne Stadium. The Lions then had to wait for the Roughriders (10-8) to do them a favour and beat the Edmonton Eskimos 31-23 in Regina.

The loss dropped the Eskimos to 7-11 and out of the playoffs.

Many of the Lions players and coaching staff watched the Saskatchewan game in a restaurant-bar at the Toronto airport before flying home.

Buono opted for dinner away from any television sets.

“It’s too nerve wrecking,” he said with a chuckle. “Coaching one game a day is plenty.

“I saw the last minute. That was enough for me.”

The Riders thumped B.C. twice early in the season by a combined score of 74-31. An improved Lions team beat Saskatchewan 23-17 Oct. 31 in Vancouver.

Buono said the Lions have risen to Saskatchewan’s level.

“The first two games were totally different,” he said. “They were a very polished team. They were a good football team.

“Now, when you go into the playoffs, the field is even.”

The Lions began September 1-7. The only reason they remained in playoff contention was because the Eskimos were equally as bad.

B.C. finished the season 7-3, but even during that stretch the Lions floundered.

They gave up 21 fourth-quarter points to lose in overtime to Winnipeg on Oct. 11. A week later the Lions lost in overtime to Edmonton.

Buono admitted there were times in those games it was hard to keep believing the playoffs were possible.

“When you watch the lead disappear in Winnipeg, to give up that many points in that short period of time, you can’t say you didn’t shake your head and sometimes you were in disbelief,” he said.

The Lions’ team that finished the year is playing to the ability Buono envisioned at training camp.

“I’ve always believed the true team is the second-half team,” he said. “The first half you can be blazing, but then you have to keep that momentum.

“The second half, the true teams really show themselves. I think because we were young, because we were in a transitional process, we are a different team. The 1-7 isn’t who we were. The 7-3 is probably more who we are.”

Arceneaux noted that four of the Lions’ first seven losses were by five points or less.

“We weren’t badly beaten,” said the sophomore receiver who had eight catches for 164 yards and two touchdowns against Hamilton. “We knew there was a play here, a play were there that kept us out of the game.

“Pretty much for the second half of the season, those games that we lost earlier in the year, somehow we’ve been pulling it off. The biggest thing is finishing.”

Quarterback Travis Lulay said the Lions have been playing sudden-death games for three weeks now.

“We had to make plays in the fourth quarter (Saturday) and that’s what a lot of playoff games come down to, playing well late in games,” said Lulay.

“For us to have to make some plays and being able to do it, I think that would give us good momentum heading into the playoffs.”

Buono knows something about late-season turnarounds.

His 2001 Calgary Stampeders team won three of its final four games, including the last regular season game on the road, to finish 8-10 and second in the West.

The Stampeders went on to win the Grey Cup that year.

Buono shrugged off any comparisons.

“I don’t even remember that team all that much,” he said. “The guys got good at the right time.”

The Lions have also gotten good at the right time. Time will only tell if history repeats itself.

“It was a tough grind but at the end it was worth it,” said Buono, who has missed the playoffs just once in 21 years as a coach.

“I think this football team is getting better. Sure we have a tough road ahead of us. The one thing I learned about the playoffs is it’s a fresh start for everybody. When you play, the pressure is usually on the home team.”