Labour Day launches key stretch for Ticats

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Kent Austin says that his Hamilton Tiger-Cats still have a long way to go this season, and that’s not merely one of his focus-on-the-now mantras aimed mainly at his players.

The Ticats, despite being tied for first place with six wins and three losses, their best halfway record in 15 years, really do still have a long way to go.

Half the regular season remains and there are some hurdles in the middle of the road, the next one of which is dressed in double blue. Actually, the next two of which, since after Monday’s Labour Day Classic, the Cats and the Toronto Argonauts have basically only the time to lick their wounds and review a bit of film before they do it all again next Friday at Sky Tomb, a.k.a. the Rogers Centre.

There is no doubt that through the first half — and, given the quarterback injuries in the west, likely the second half too — the eastern division has been the better of the CFL’s two conferences. What’s next? The Blue Jays playing meaningful baseball in September? One occurs about as often as the other does.

So relative positioning in the east becomes an issue. You want to make sure you have a home playoff game and, if you’re the title-favoured Ticats, you want to make sure it’s the only one you have to play against the east. For the uninitiated, that means you want to finish first. Of course, who doesn’t?

So games within the division have become a big thing, especially with the Argos also at 6-3. The Ticats beat the Argos the last time the calendar granted us a holiday Monday, with a 34-18 victory at Tim Hortons Field on Aug. 3. If the Cats can win Monday, or Friday, they’ll win the season’s series against Toronto, which could come into play for post-season seeding.

When the invincibility-mystique of Tim Hortons Field was busted last week by the Montreal Alouettes handing the Ticats their first defeat at their new digs, it also gave the Als the season’s series against Hamilton, even though the two teams will meet again in mid-October on the McGill campus.

Hamilton has yet to even play the other team in the division, the Ottawa RedBlacks, whom they don’t see until the final two weeks of the season, when they meet twice in six days. Thus, it’s important to at least split these games with the Argos, so they’re not down two season’s series to division opponents. Again, just in case tiebreakers come into play, not to mention the four points up for grabs between Monday and Friday, a single week for most jobs but two weeks’ worth for these ancient rivals.

“Most important game in the schedule,” Austin said of the Labour Day Classic, but tempering it with coaching reality, “and we’ll be saying the same about the following week and the week after that.”

The Argos will not start Ricky Ray, who’s been out all year, on Monday but he will be in the lineup, likely as the No. 3 quarterback. If he does get into the game, the Ticats’ secondary would be well advised to remember that few, if any, in the history of this league have thrown a better deep corner ball than Ray.

Trevor Harris, Zach Collaros’s old roommate in Toronto, has played very well and even in the Civic Holiday loss here, racked up some pretty good numbers, with 326 passing yards.

Harris, and mopping-up Mitchell Gale, connected with what has since become known as Toronto’s Big Three — elongated rookie wide receivers Kevin Elliott, Vidal Hazelton and Tori Gurley — a combined 19 times in that game for a couple of majors but Toronto was done in early by Ticat defensive back Brandon Stewart’s onside-kick recovery return for a touchdown. And the Cats played well in all three phases of the game, which they certainly did not do against the Als last week.

When the Eskimos tackle the Stampeders right after the Cats host the Argos, it will be the first Labour Day in CFL history that first place in both the east and west are on the line in head-to-head games.

“I would never have thought that,” said Austin, who is regularly shocked by the copious statistical anomalies that should never happen in an eight-or-nine-team league.

Of course, the bulk of those anomalies involve the Ticats and the Argos. When those two are involved, nothing is predictable. Especially on the first Monday of September.