A team that opened the regular season 1-6 before finishing it on an 8-3 run came agonizingly close to a comeback win over the Calgary Stampeders in the CFL championship game.
"I just told them how proud I was of turning the season around," head coach Kent Austin said of his post-game speech. "We've got a good young football team.
"Sometimes things don't work out. Welcome to the game of life. It's not always going to go our way. That's the way it is sometimes. But it doesn't take away what they accomplished this year. It doesn't take away how hard these guys played, how close they were as a football team and what a great future we have in front of us."
Hamilton's Grey Cup roster featured 39 first- and second-year players (compared to 20 for Calgary).
Austin, who doubles as coach and GM, will look to refine his roster after the heartbreaking 20-16 loss to the Stampeders at B.C. Place Stadium. There were changes after last year's 45-23 Grey Cup defeat at the hands of the Saskatchewan Roughriders, but more are needed.
"We've been in two Grey Cups, we haven't won them. We need to get better," he said.
Kick returner Brandon Banks, whose potential 90-yard winning punt return for a TD with 35 seconds left was negated by a penalty, is a free agent. A game-changer, the five-foot-seven 149-pounder amazingly ran punts back for four touchdowns — two of which were called back due to penalties — in two playoff games.
Austin will likely want to strengthen a secondary that was exposed at times in the playoffs and ranked eighth in the league in passing yards allowed per game (260) in the regular season. And the Hamilton offensive line ranked eighth in the league in sacks allowed.
The Tiger-Cats ranked ninth in the league in taking advantage of forays into the red zone. Over the final eight games of the regular season, Hamilton converted just eight of its last 22 red zone chances into touchdowns. For the season, its red zone TD percentage was 40 per cent, compared to No. 1 Calgary at 77 per cent.
Hamilton had to settle for three field goals in the second half during its comeback bid against the Stamps.
"We didn't score enough touchdowns and you've got to score touchdowns in this league," quarterback Zach Collaros said of Sunday's effort.
Injuries did not help the Hamilton cause during the season.
The Ticats were 1-4 without Collaros, a third-year pro who helped the Ticats claw their way back in the second half Sunday. He used his mobility to escape a fierce Stampeder rush, digging deep into his bag of tricks to keep the play alive.
"That's Zach," said Austin. "He's an unbelievable competitor. He's got that in spades.
"His best football is still way in front of him. He's going to get a lot better as he plays and grows as a quarterback."
On the plus side, the Hamilton defence led the league in fewest rushing yards allowed per game (77). And thanks to Banks, the Ticats were No. 1 in punt return average.
Austin will also look to retain the band of brothers feel to his locker-room. This is a team that genuinely cares about each other.
And Hamilton can look forward to a full season in its new home at Tim Hortons Field, where it went 6-0 during the regular season and 1-0 in the playoffs.
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