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New stadium still winless

Up to Bisons after Rifles lose home opener

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The new stadium is still waiting to be christened with a win, after the junior Winnipeg Rifles dropped their home opener at Investors Group Field.

Despite a scrappy comeback effort in the second half, the Rifles fell to the visiting Edmonton Huskies, 36-29 on Sunday. With the loss, the Rifles fall to 0-2 on the season, with six games to go. Their first tilt, in Saskatchewan against the Saskatoon Hilltops last week, also ended in defeat.

Perhaps it's time to consider the postcard-pretty new stadium may be cursed. "I don't want to say that, because the Bisons are on the field now and they're coming up," chuckled Rifles president Todd Wilson, after his team left the field and the University of Manitoba squad moved on for their practice. "Someday, somebody's going to break the jinx, and then look out. You open the floodgates and here they come."

Still, a curse implies some degree of mystery, and it's no secret why the Rifles dropped Sunday's game. They struggled to keep drives alive through the first half, managing only six first downs while the Huskies earned 13. They were tagged for 72 yards of penalties in the first two quarters, where their opponents were only dinged for 17.

So no surprise then, by the time 30 minutes of play were done, the Rifles were trailing 21-9. "It's just the little things," quarterback Ryan Marsch said after the game. "Being offside, not understanding that on third down we have to convert these things. The little, little things that have been hurting us... we have to make those better, so all the rest just clicks."

On the plus side: the Rifles didn't end the game the way they started it. Not content to go away quietly in front of a healthy crowd of about 875 appreciative fans, the squad came back firing in the second half. Marsch connected with Matt Lariviere for a touchdown to lift the Rifles' total to 15, and with just over 12 minutes left in the fourth quarter a beautiful 24-yard touchdown toss to receiver Julian Banares set the score at 29-22.

The problem, of course, is that Edmonton wasn't done scoring either. Although the Rifles managed a last-minute touchdown to put themselves back within seven points, there just wasn't enough time left on the clock to complete a comeback. "It's tough to dig yourself out of that hole," Rifles coach Ryan Karhut said. "We just felt like we were chasing the entire game."

Still, at least the team didn't take the early hole lying down. "We're pretty relentless," Karhut said. "We're not going to fold and give up easy, which is something I'm pretty proud of with our guys, the effort that they're showing us is great. We just need better purpose with our effort, and that falls on the coaching staff."

Oh well. On the plus side, the game was a solid, but sweltering hot introduction to the new digs. Little wind makes it into Investors Group Field to cool the hot and heavy air, and the Huskies -- who brought a smaller roster than the Rifles -- battled a pile of muscle cramps, while two players and even a referee struggled with heatstroke, Marsch said.

Meanwhile, the Rifles enjoyed one of their biggest home-opener crowds in several years -- and are looking forward to their next home game. That one is slated for Sept. 15 against the visiting Hilltops. "It's stressful, but at the same time fun," Wilson said of the adjustment to IGF.

"We were for our entire history at CanadInns (Stadium), we knew where everything was and where the pipes leaked, so we could stay out of the way. But the fan experience (here) is much better than it has been for the last 10 years."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 26, 2013 C3

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