Defeated Eskimos vow to ‘keep heads up’

The Edmonton Eskimos dressing room was ankle-deep in garbage bags and disappointment Monday after the teams decisive loss in Sunday’s West Final.

EDMONTON — The Edmonton Eskimos dressing room was ankle-deep in garbage bags and disappointment Monday after the teams decisive loss in Sunday’s West Final.

However, many of the team’s players and coaches said just getting that deep into the CFL playoffs was a victory in itself.

“You’ve been going hard for six months and you wake up one day and there’s no meetings, no practice, no game to play the next week,” said quarterback Ricky Ray as coaches and players packed their bags for the off-season. “It definitely stings, especially being so close to the Grey Cup and not being able to make it.

“We’ve got to say ‘That was a good season, but we’ve got to come back a little bit more hungry for next time.”’

The West Final ended up in a 40-23 loss to the Grey Cup-bound B.C. Lions, but the overall season featured a reversal of fortune of the most welcome kind. A team that went 7-11 in the 2010 season racked up a record of 11-7 this year.

And perhaps most importantly, the Eskimos say they’ve recovered some of the team’s spirit from the days when championships, not just playoff games, were the expectation.

“It seems like over the last few years, it’s just been guys coming and going and we really didn’t have that sense of unity,” said Ray.

“(Coach) Kavis (Reed) did a great job of bringing us all together. Hopefully, we can use this as fuel for the off-season to come back stronger next year.

“He’s just done a tremendous job. I think guys bought into his system and we really came together and became a pretty tight-knit team and that always makes playing football a lot more fun.”

Defensive end Greg Peach thinks the season provided a lesson in learning how to win.

“We need to start doing this every year — not just expecting playoffs, but expecting the Grey Cup,” he said. “This was a good start.

“Everyone doubted us. We came out and we showed that we could compete and become one of the better teams in this leauge. Next year is the year for us to finish the job.”

Slotback Fred Stamps said Monday’s final team meeting was positive.

“The guys, they’re hungry. Nobody’s hanging their head, and that’s a good sign. Everybody’s keeping their head up and looking forward to next year.”

Key players, such as wide receiver Adarius Bowman now up for contract talks, said they want to return.

“I would love to see that (locker) again,” he said.

Reed himself shrugged off the compliments from the dressing room.

“When you’re blessed in a leadership position is that you’re a steward, to make sure that you take care of what you’ve been given,” he said.

“I think that my job has been to make certain that the locker-room is taken care of, make certain that we have a stable environment and that we can keep distractions to a minimum.

“We’re on the right path. We have the right character.” Reed said planning for next year is already underway — “making the smart decisions to get bigger and faster.”

But better times for the green and gold are within sight, said Ray.

“You’ve got to love playing for the Eskimos and you’ve got to hate all the other teams,” he said. “That’s what it was like when I first came into the league. We had a lot veteran guys who just loved playing for this city and this organization and hated all the other cities.

“(This year), you could see guys really buying in to what it means to be an Eskimo here. It’s a great thing to see.”