VANCOUVER — B.C. Lions players and staff say there is one goal on their minds heading into the CFL season: make it past the Western final and claim the Grey Cup.
The Lions fell to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in last year's division final, losing 28-20 despite a late comeback bid from former B.C. quarterback Nathan Rourke.
Rourke departed in the off-season for the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars, leaving Vernon Adams Jr. in the starting role.
"In the big picture, it's always winning the Grey Cup but you don't win the Grey Cup today," said head coach Rick Campbell about the team's goals for the season. "It's a matter of getting better day by day and being ready for that first game of the year."
The loss to Winnipeg still irks some of the Lions players and staff, who said they believed they could go the distance.
Wide receiver Lucky Whitehead had 1,011 yards and three touchdowns in 15 games last season. He said his focus this year is to ensure he's healthy for a deep playoff run.
"I've got to be able to take care of myself this season and be able to help the offence as much as possible," he said. "We left some meat on the bone, especially myself."
Wide receivers coach Jason Tucker said while his charges are largely the same, the team has brought in some new players that will help with the push for a Cup.
"We brought in a lot of good guys to help us out and get that one more game. Get over Winnipeg, get over that Winnipeg hump and get to the cup," he said.
The Lions, who open the 2023 season Thursday night at Calgary against the Stampeders, come in to the campaign looking to replicate their high-flying offence from last year.
Despite losing Rourke, the Lions receiving corps has not changed.
Dominique Rhymes, Whitehead, Keon Hatcher and Jevon Cottoy have all returned and all have spoken of their bond with their new quarterback.
Rhymes led the team in 2022 with 1,401 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns, while Hatcher had 1,043 receiving yards and five TDs.
"We know how close we were. We know the work we've got to put in, how we need to stay consistent and good things will happen to us," Rhymes said.
The Lions won their final pre-season tilt against the Stampeders 25-22, surviving a late comeback.
B.C. raced out to a lead led by Adams, who went 12-for-12 and led three touchdown drives. He said he felt connected to his wide receivers.
Adams has previously spoken of the work that needs to be done for a quarterback and his receivers to bond. He hosted several teammates at his California home in the off-season to run informal practices and for everyone to get to know each other.
"These guys are playmakers," he said after the pre-season win about the team's wide receivers.
Campbell said his players are not underestimating their fellow West Division opponents and will face a test from the Stampeders' high-powered offence in the season opener.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 7, 2023.
Nick Wells, The Canadian Press