He's played for seven teams across three different leagues, but Sergio Castillo has never experienced a playoff game as a pro.
That's all set to change on Sunday as the 31-year-old kicker from Amarillo, Texas, will finally get a taste of post-season action as he and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers host the Saskatchewan Roughriders for the West Division final at IG Field.
"I'm excited and anxious in a good way," said Castillo, a seven-year veteran who saw his career take off in 2019 with the B.C. Lions where he made a league-high 91 per cent of his kicks.
"To finally be able to be part of a team like this, you know, I haven't been part of a team like this since college. The locker room, there's really a bond there… I can see why the team's winning because when you have that camaraderie, the results come."
Castillo started his career out of West Texas A&M with a brief stay with the Atlanta Falcons before heading up north for his first stint with the Blue Bombers. From there, he took his talents to the Ottawa RedBlacks, Hamilton Tiger-Cats, B.C. Lions, the XFL's Houston Roughnecks, back to the Lions, and then the New York Jets before returning for Round 2 in Winnipeg. His travels haven't led him to the playoffs until now, but that doesn't concern him.
"To finally be able to be part of a team like this, you know, I haven't been part of a team like this since college. The locker room, there's really a bond there… I can see why the team's winning because when you have that camaraderie, the results come." — Sergio Castillo
"For me, since middle school I've been kicking… There's nothing different between kicking back at home in Amarillo or kicking here in a playoff game. For me, it's just trying to kick it through the uprights. That's it. Don't make it bigger than it is," he said.
With the temperature dropping and the stakes getting higher, it's the time of year where kickers show what they're worth. They can make all the difference in the world and that was proven in last weekend's West Division semi-final between the 'Riders and Calgary Stampeders. Calgary kicker Rene Paredes converted a league-best 91.7 per cent of his attempts during the regular season but missed three attempts in the 33-30 loss to Saskatchewan, including a 44-yarder in overtime. Riders kicker Brett Lauther was four-for-five on the night and drilled the game winner from 34 yards away.
"You feel for the kicker, right? You feel for Rene when he went through that. But every time they were kicking out there, I tried to put myself in that position," said Castillo.
"I tried to envision the commentators saying my name or envision Osh (Bombers head coach Mike O'Shea) giving me the go on every kick and try to imagine the wind based off the flags there. So, a lot of vision kicks were going through my mind, putting myself in that scenario. Going through my steps, imagining what it'd smell like and everything."
The pressure's on Castillo as the Bombers brought him in to be the final piece to a championship-calibre club as their previous kickers this season reeked. Before B.C. shipped his rights to Winnipeg, the Bombers trotted out Tyler Crapigna, Marc Liegghio, and Ali Mourtada, but those three were a combined 57.1 per cent. None of them proved to be the right replacement for Justin Medlock who connected on 14-of-15 field goals in the team's Grey Cup run in 2019.
Now it's up to Castillo to try to fill the void left by Medlock — the fifth most accurate kicker in CFL playoff history at 86.7 per cent.
"Guys ask me if it's difficult kicking the ball when it's cold like that. During warm ups, it always is, but when we're in the game, you're in the zone and you don't think about it. You feel so smooth. Once the lights turn on, it's a different show." — Sergio Castillo
"He's a pro. He's been there and done it," said head coach Mike O'Shea on Castillo.
"He's got a routine, he follows it, he gets the work done, he gets everybody involved in getting the work done. He helps other guys out. It's just a little more like what we were used to in terms of how he handles his business."
Castillo is seven-for-nine in three games with the Bombers this year and four-for-five on extra points. But kicking in December could be a whole new beast. The forecast currently has a high chance of snow flurries and a low of -23 C on Sunday.
"Guys ask me if it's difficult kicking the ball when it's cold like that. During warm ups, it always is, but when we're in the game, you're in the zone and you don't think about it. You feel so smooth. Once the lights turn on, it's a different show."
The Bombers and their fans can only hope that Castillo's show isn't different than the one they were used to seeing from Medlock.
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.