Next Year Country

Like so many Saskatchewan kids, I grew up watching the Riders. And much like the people of Saskatchewan, with the land embedded in our souls, the fortunes of the Riders over the past three decades I’ve followed the team have come to symbolize a population long accustomed to accepting whatever fates beyond our control may bring.

Our team didn’t make the playoffs; there was a grasshopper infestation. A 9-9 season was considered a success; the price for a bushel of wheat went up a few pennies. And on coffee row, everyone said there was always next year.

In the last decade, something’s changed in the psyche of Saskatchewan – we’re richer and more confident, less reliant on the agricultural sector and seeing more diversity in both our industries and our demographics.

You see this change in the Riders too. No longer are losing seasons an acceptable option. The atmosphere, the mentality has shifted. As Riders CEO Jim Hopson has said (and I may be paraphrasing slightly), “We want to earn your support for us, we don’t want to feel entitled to your support just because you were born here.”

Last year’s Grey Cup, with that last minute “too many men” penalty defined irony – Rider fans proudly proclaimed themselves the 13th man and the 13th man was our downfall. But still, those old feelings run deep and “there’s always next year” was heard on coffee row once again.

The difference is that this time around, people really believed it.

And against some heavy odds – tough loses to bottom-dwelling teams throughout the season, losing our field goal kicker in mid-season, a four game losing skid at the end of the year, come-from-behind playoff victories against both a resurgent BC Lions team and a league dominating (but overly arrogant) Calgary Stampeders team – the Riders did indeed manage to once again make it to the big game.

And it felt like this was the year the harvest was destined to be a good one.

Instead, like an early frost just as the combines are ready to roll, it wasn’t meant to be. The Riders lost another tough one tonight and even though it wasn’t lost on the last play like last year, this one feels tougher to take. That’s what happens when someone in Saskatchewan starts believing in destiny.

This one also felt easier to take. That’s what happens when you remember how the Riders seem to always find a way to disappoint – whether it was letting the opposition score three touchdowns in the fourth quarter to lose a meaningless mid-season game sometime in the early 1990’s or when they hold the CFL record for futility when the big game’s on the line.

Unlike last year, I was resigned to the loss early tonight when the Als pulled off that fake punt in the third (?) quarter. I know games aren’t lost and won on one play. But one play can shift momentum in a way that a team can never recover.

I’m also not like some fans who are calling the head coach a saint one week and the devil incarnate the next. But special teams were a glaring weakness all year and the failure to address this in any meaningful way is something I believe ultimately cost the Riders the game today.  (Of course, a fumbled kick return last week could’ve just as easily been the special teams play that ended their Riders season prematurely so we flatlanders tend to also take solace in what we have.)

It doesn’t make the loss easier to take but having seen that trick play deflate the Riders and the inevitable loss feeling more and more certain, that’s at least better than jumping up and down and hugging everybody thinking we’d won only to have that snatched away like last year.

There’s a couple things I take consolation in. Anthony Calvillo has been the Grey Cup eight times in eleven years and only won three times. Darian Durant is 0/2 as a starter (and 1/3 during his entire time with the Riders) so there’s still a huge amount of potential for him the next decade if they can keep the same strong team-first framework in place.

The other thing is sort of petty but I was *so* happy to see Als kicker, Damon Duval, who was trying to rewrite history this week by saying he wouldn’t have missed the last minute field goal last year on his first attempt but the thrown flags (which got him a do-over which won the game) distracted him.  In this year’s game? He missed two field goals. It’s a minor detail but it confirms for me that the Riders lost the game last year rather than the Als failing to win it – a small but important distinction.

Anyhow, I’m off to bed and with all the drinks and appetizers and the stress, I don’t feel that bad.  After he came in from starting his car, I noticed my dad had tears in his eyes. I looked at him and realised that I’ve only lived *in* next year country for most of my life. He’s lived next year country – another small but important distinction.

We’ll get them next year.  I honestly believe it.

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