REGINA - It wasn't the rushing record Kory Sheets originally wanted but it came with the ultimate prize.
Sheets captured MVP honours after rushing for a record 197 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries to lead Saskatchewan to an impressive 45-23 Grey Cup win over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Sunday night. The victory, before a loud, predominantly green gathering of 44,710 was a historic one as the Riders became the third straight host team to win the CFL title and claimed their first-ever championship at Mosaic Stadium, which will be replaced in 2017.
"It feels good to get the rushing record but it feels great to get that Grey Cup," the former Purdue star said. "I've never won a championship, outside of high school.
"I've been on those teams that just couldn't really cut it. Now we have a team that was the cream of the crop. We went out there and proved it and showed it all season long."
It was an intriguing matchup involving one team with the rabid support of thousands of diehard fans and another that had essentially been on the road all season. The Ticats played their entire 2013 home schedule in Guelph, Ont., while a new stadium is being built in Hamilton.
There was also the storyline of Ticats coach Kent Austin, receiver Andy Fantuz and quarterback Henry Burris returning to Regina to face their former team in the biggest CFL game of the year. But Sheets said the Riders heeded the advice of their head coach, Corey Chamblin.
"That's one thing coach Chamblin instilled in us: Be determined, be relentless and just focus on us and that's what we did," Sheets said. "We didn't care about the Ticats all week.
"We didn't think about them, we didn't talk about them. All we wanted to know was what our gameplan was and when the game started."
Austin had played a vital role in two Saskatchewan Grey Cup wins. He was the club's starter in its 43-40 championship win in '89 then in '07 as the Riders' rookie head coach. The CFL club opted to keep a huge banner honouring Austin's accomplishments hanging at Mosaic, where there is also a parking lot named for him.
"I never felt pressure to win this game," said Chamblin. "I had moreso the anxiety of winning the game because I wanted to be a champion. It had nothing to do with Kent Austin, it had nothing to do with the home game. It was like any other game. This was the final chapter, I just wanted to make sure we closed it."
Sheets opened the regular season rushing for 100 or more yards in Saskatchewan’s first six games and in seven of eight, amassing over 1,000 yards at the halfway point of the season. He was on pace to shatter Mike Pringle's single-season rushing record of 2,065 yards and was open about the fact he wanted it bad.
But Sheets not only lost a shot at the record after missing three games with a knee injury, but also the CFL season rushing lead to Calgary's Jon Cornish. Sheets eventually returned to the lineup but couldn't overtake Cornish, finishing second with 1,598 yards, 215 behind the Stampeders star.
Cornish went on to win the CFL's outstanding player award — the first Canadian to do so since '78 — while adding the top Canuck honour for a second straight season. But Sheets played a role in ending Cornish's season, running for 177 yards and a TD in a convincing 35-13 West Division final win over Calgary.
Then on Sunday, the five-foot-11, 208-pound Sheets broke Johnny Bright's Grey Cup record of 169 yards recorded with Edmonton in the '56 game. Saskatchewan's offence was dominant with 513 total yards, including 268 yards rushing, and had the ball for nearly 35 minutes.
"They kicked our butts," said Burris, who finished 20-of-43 passing for 272 yards and an interception. "They're the Grey Cup champions for a reason and they proved it
"They made plays and we didn't. We can't put ourselves behind a team with that much explosiveness."