Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Blades supporting cast needs to help Hebig and Shmyr

Cameron Hebig (#9) fires a shot on goal for the Blades.
    It is starting to feel like the Saskatoon Blades are a two-person team relying on star overage forwards Cameron Hebig and Braylon Shmyr.
    During the early going of the 2017-18 WHL regular season, Hebig and Shmyr have piled up the points, but it feels like their efforts have been wasted a few too many times.
    On Wednesday night at the SaskTel Centre, the Blades dropped to 3-6, when they were double up 6-3 by the visiting Vancouver Giants. Hebig scored twice for the Blades, and Shmyr picked up an assist on Saskatoon’s other tally.
    Hebig has seven goals and six assists in seven appearances for Saskatoon, while Shmyr has seven goals and seven assists dressing for all nine games the Blades have played in the current campaign.
Braylon Shmyr wheels into the offensive zone for the Blades.
    Despite the efforts of that dynamic duo on Wednesday, the Blades didn’t get enough production from their supporting cast, and the combination of their defence and goaltending wasn’t strong enough to give them a chance to win.
    A sparse crowd of 2,578 watched the visiting Giants improve to 4-4-1-1 by receiving contributions from a number of sources. Shifty 18-year-old centre James Malm, who stands 5-foot-8 and weighs 170 pounds, led the way for the Giants recording a goal and two assists. At the moment, the Langley, B.C., product is Vancouver’s leading scorer with two goals and nine assists.
    Brendan Semchuk, who is an 18-year-old Kamloops, B.C., product, potted a pair of goals playing right wing on Malm’s line. The Giants scoring was rounded out with singles coming from Milos Roman, Tyler Popowich and Owen Hardy.
James Malm had a goal and two assists for the Giants.
    The Blades stumbled out of the gate with a costly error, when Russian import defenceman Mark Rubinchik gave the puck away to Roman in front of the Saskatoon net.
    Roman quickly blasted the gift past Blades netminder Ryan Kubic to give the Giants a 1-0 lead.
    Saskatoon did show fight. Late in the first, Hebig wired home a shot from the slot on a power play to tie things up at 1-1.
    Just 21 seconds into the second period, the Blades went ahead 2-1, when Czech import defenceman Libor Hajek pinched low to the right side of the Giants net to pot his third of the season.
    The lead lasted just 14 seconds as Semchuk tied things up at 2-2 with his first of the contest.
    Popowich scored late in the second and Malm and Semchuk, with his second tally of the game, opened the scoring in the third to give the Giants a 5-2 lead.
    At the 12:14 mark of the third, Hebig netted his second of the contest to cut the gap to 5-3. The Blades applied pressure after that tally, but 17-year-old rookie netminder Todd Scott withstood the surge.
Brendan Semchuk scored twice for the Giants.
    With 3:41 to play in the third, the Blades pulled Kubic for an extra attacker, but Hardy scored into an empty net for the Giants to round out the scoring in the contest.
    Kubic turned away 26-of-31 shots to take the loss in goal for the Blades.
    Scott made 32 stops in goal for the Giants to pick up his first career WHL victory to build some personal momentum as his team travels to Brandon on Friday to face the Wheat Kings.
    So far this season, the Blades have scored a total of 29 goals and Hebig and Shmyr have score a combined 14 of those tallies.
    The Blades two regular goalies also don’t have the most flattering of numbers.
Some rough stuff goes down in front of the Vancouver net.
    Kubic has a 3-4 record, a 4.19 goals against average and a .862 save percentage.
    Back up Joel Grzybowski has an 0-1 record, a 4.68 goals against average and a .825 save percentage in 90 minutes of work.
    Those inflated numbers haven’t been all the fault of the two netminders.
    With that said, the play of the Blades defencemen and their netminders have to be better in their own zone.
    The Blades, who have missed the playoffs in each of the past four seasons, don’t have to wait long to try and get a better effort.
    They travel to Prince Albert on Saturday to face the Raiders (3-4-3) at 7 p.m. at the Art Hauser Centre.

Blue and gold remember Downie

Gord Downie remembered on the SaskTel Centre big scoreboard screen.
    With the passing for Gord Downie late Tuesday night, the Blades ensured the legendary frontman of The Tragically Hip was remembered during their contest on Wednesday.
    During warmups, the Blades played only songs from the iconic Canadian rock band. Following warmups, the Blades played a video of Downie and the Hip playing a song on the big screen on the scoreboard at the SaskTel Centre.
    When the song concluded, the scoreboard showed a picture of Downie on it with a written inscription, “Gordon Downie 1964-2017.”
    The Blades also played a number of songs from The Tragically Hip during stoppages in play.
Downie passed away at age 53 after a battle with brain cancer.

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Sunday, 15 October 2017

Hilltops hold off Rifles, advance to host PFC Final

Saskatoon will battle Regina in conference championship game

QB Jordan Walls jets to a game-clinching first down.
    Jordan Walls just wanted to make one play and get on to the next round of the Canadian Junior Football League playoffs.
    The fourth-year quarterback of the Saskatoon Hilltops helped his team take a 28-7 fourth-quarter lead on the visiting Winnipeg Rifles in a Prairie Junior Conference semifinal match on Sunday at Saskatoon Minor Football Field. Walls watched the Rifles score two touchdowns to cut the Hilltops edge to 28-21 with 47.4 seconds to play in the fourth quarter.
    After the Hilltops recovered an onside kick following Winnipeg’s second major of the fourth quarter, the Toppers faced a second and long situation. Walls faked a handoff to running back Adam Machart and bootlegged wide to the left side of the field, gained the necessary yardage for a first down and went down in bounds to ensure the clock didn’t stop.
    With the Rifles depleted of timeouts, the Hilltops kneeled down on the ball twice to run out the clock and preserve a 28-21 victory for their 10 straight CJFL playoff win. Walls was pumped to make the game-clinching play when his team needed it the most.
Joshua Ewanchyna returns the opening kickoff for a Hilltops TD.
    “It was big,” said Walls. “I think anyone on our team wanted to get that ball.
    “I was glad that Sarge (Hilltops head coach Tom Sargeant) gave me the opportunity. I just had to go out and make a play, and our O-line blocked it well.
    “Mac (Machart) sold the fake really well, and our receivers had great blocking. It was pretty easy for me to get that edge, and just get the first down and get down.”
    The win allows the Hilltops, who have won the last three straight CJFL championships, to advance to the PFC Final to face their provincial rivals the Regina Thunder. The Thunder slipped past the Huskies in Edmonton 24-21 to claim the other PFC semifinal match on Sunday.
    Before the Hilltops could worry about playing for another conference championship, they had to take care of business with the Rifles, and their hands were full doing just that. Walls said Sunday’s clash at SMF Field had a playoff intensity to it.
    “The atmosphere was great,” said Walls. “They came in and they played a heck of a game.
Cole Chowen jumps up high to haul in a TD catch for the Rifles.
    “They kept it tight for the whole game. The atmosphere was good around here. Our energy was a little bit down, and we need to work on that coming into next week.”
    The Hilltops did storm out of the gate. Kick returner Joshua Ewanchyna took the game’s opening kickoff and ran it back 91 yards down the right sideline for a Saskatoon touchdown. Before the first quarter ended, safety/kicker James Vause nailed a 35-yard field goal to give the Hilltops a 10-0 lead.
    As the Hilltops built their lead, they had to earn their yards offensively against a motivated Winnipeg side. With 6:33 to play in the second quarter, Rifles quarterback Jonathan Remple threw a high pass to receiver Cole Chowen. Chowen outjumped Hilltops defensive back Luke Melnyk for the ball to pull down a four-yard touchdown reception to cut the Hilltops edge to 10-7.
    Sargeant expected the Rifles, who were 4-4 during the regular season, to come out with a lot of energy, and he thought his players didn’t match the intensity of the Winnipeg side at times.
The Rifles defence gang tackles Hilltops RB Logan Fischer.
    “That is as good as they’ve played all year,” said Sargeant. “In the playoffs, you are going to get the team’s Sunday best.
    “They had nothing to lose, and they had everything to gain. They played like that, and we played tight. We are playing like we are scared to win.
    “If you are like that, it is only going to get worse. It is not going to get better.”
    The Hilltops slowly appeared to gain control of the contest from that point.
    With 52 seconds to play in the second quarter, Walls hit star receiver Sam Mike on a 14-yard pass and run touchdown toss, and Mike finished the play by diving into the end zone to give the hosts a 17-7 edge.
Sam Mike dives into the end zone for a Hilltops touchdown.
    Mike topped all receivers hauling in nine passes for 101 yards to go with his major score.
    Near the midway point of the third quarter, Machart plunged in from a yard out to put the Hilltops up 24-7. Vause hit a 12-yard field goal with 12.8 seconds to play in the third quarter and rouge from a 42 yard missed field goal early in the fourth quarter to give the Hilltops a 28-7 lead.
    Machart carried the ball 19 times for 105 yards to go with his major for the Hilltops, while star fifth-year running back Logan Fischer piled up 108 yards on 13 carries.
    The Rifles didn’t go away despite facing a massive deficit. With 2:56 remaining in the fourth quarter, Remple hit Griffin Shillingford with a 10-yard touchdown toss to cut the Hilltops lead to 28-14.
RB Adam Machart piled up 105 yards rushing for the Hilltops.
    After forcing the Hilltops to go two-and-out on their next offensive series, the Rifles put together another long and quickly executed drive ending with Remple hitting Chowen with a 19-yard touchdown toss with 47.4 seconds to play to further cut the Hilltops advantage to 28-21.
    That set the scene for the Hilltops to recover a Rifles onside kick attempt and run out the clock. Remple completed 20-of-35 passes for 239 yards, three touchdowns and one interception, and he ran the ball eight times for 36 yards.
    Sargeant said his Hilltops, who improved to 8-1 overall, were lucky to walk away with a win on Sunday and need to be better overall in the PFC Final against the Thunder.
Hilltops safety James Vause (#24) knocks down a Rifles pass.
    “At the end of the day, this is game nine, so you’d think we would come out and play our best game of the year, and we didn’t do that,” said Sargeant. “Obviously, our practice week was not proper.
    “The tempo wasn’t what it needed to be. As a coach, I am going to have to make some adjustments and make sure we just have a better week of practice. In football, you play once a week.
    “We’ll come out and play better than what we did today, because this ain’t good enough. If we play like that again next week you know what, that will be it. No one is going to feel sorry for the Saskatoon Hilltops, so we better man up and figure it out.”
    The Thunder improved to 6-3 overall with their win in Edmonton over the Huskies, who finished with a 7-2 overall mark.
QB Jonathan Remple nearly powered the Rifles to an upset win.
    The PFC Final between the Hilltops and Thunder will be held this coming Sunday at SMF Field at 3 p.m.
    The Hilltops and Thunder split their two regular season encounters. Last year, the Hilltops eliminated the Thunder from the playoffs with a 25-24 victory in a PFC semifinal clash at SMF Field.
    The two sides last met in a PFC Final back in 2013, when the Thunder claimed a 21-16 victory at Griffiths Stadium on the campus of the University of Saskatchewan.
    Walls, who completed 13-of-24 passes for 130 yards and one touchdown against the Rifles, is expecting another epic playoff encounter when the Hilltops and Thunder meet again.
    “It is going to be intense,” said Walls. “I think you look at the last two games we’ve played them, and they’ve been intense.
The Hilltops celebrate their PFC semifinal victory over the Rifles.
    “The stakes are high now. We want to get back to where we want to be, and they want to stop us. They are going to come in here and have a few things, and we’re going to have a few things for them as well.”

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Saturday, 14 October 2017

Huskies victory wiped out

Penalty nullifies Braun TD catch with 4.8 seconds to play

Receiver Chad Braun thought he had the winning TD here for the Huskies.
    Some Higher Power up there owes Chad Braun a mulligan.
    The veteran receiver, who is in his fifth-year of eligibility, looked like he was going to be the hero for the University of Saskatchewan Huskies football team during a U Sports regular season clash on Saturday night at Griffiths Stadium against the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds.
    With the Thunderbirds holding a slim 29-25 lead, Braun hauled in a pass on a sideline out route and zipped into the end zone for a 33-yard touchdown reception with 4.8 seconds to play.
    The 24-year-old’s score was wiped out, when the officials called an illegal block penalty on Huskies receiver Yol Piok.
    On the next and last play of the game, a Hail Mary pass from Huskies quarterback Kyle Siemens was intercepted by Thunderbirds receiver/defensive back Alex Morrison at the UBC seven to preserve a 29-25 victory for the visitors.
QB Kyle Siemens made some big plays passing for the Huskies.
    The officials departed under a chorus of boos and catcalls from a large number of the 3,310 spectators that were in attendance. A miraculous comeback by the host side was not to be as the Huskies trailed 23-2 entering the fourth quarter.
    If you are part of the Huskies coaching staff headed up by Scott Flory, you initially want to watch the video of Braun’s nullified touchdown catch to see if the officials made the correct penalty call on Piok. If the officials were right, it gives you some piece of mind knowing the correct call was made.
    If the call was wrong, you can start consoling your players telling them they did indeed do the right things during the game-deciding moment. The sideline bosses also have to tell their players in this instant you just have to gut through what happened, because in life, you will encounter various situations where bad things happen to you that are out of your control.
Chad Braun had two TDs called back due to penalties.
    You can get upset at an official’s mistake for a time, but then you have to learn to let it go and move on. In a respectable fashion, you have to realize they are human too.
    The one person who will like have bad dreams about Saturday’s clash is Braun. He had two touchdowns that were called back due to penalties.
    Besides seeing his last-second touchdown catch get nullified, Braun had an 82-yard punt return touchdown late in the third quarter erased due to an offside penalty.
    Braun, who stands 5-foot-10 and weighs 190 pounds, came to the Huskies last season after spending five campaigns with the Saskatoon Hilltops of the Canadian Junior Football League. He helped the Toppers win CJFL titles in 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2015 developing a reputation of having a playing style like Weston Dressler, when he played with the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders.
    On top of making electric plays on the field, Braun is one of the most likeable players in the Saskatoon football community, so you feel extra sorry for him when his big plays get taken away.
    A number of Huskies supporters will likely blame the officials for the outcome of Saturday’s game.
QB Michael O’Connor put up big numbers for UBC.
    What most in the general public don’t realize is officials these days do their best to try and get all the calls in a game right, because the most consistent ones move on to work games at higher levels. If they realize a mistake was made, they often don’t feel good about what happened.
    Resorting to jumping on them and overly criticising them just makes the situation worse, and if teams level hard criticism, the members of those clubs gamble with the prospect of coming off as pricks. At that point, you might accidentally not have some calls go your way in the future.
    In Canada, officiating in all sports is a work in progress in trying to make things better.
    In the United States, a lot more funding is put into officiating at all levels of sports, but sports in a big industry there. In Canada, sports at all levels often relies on volunteers to move forward and succeed.
    It also has to be noted for the longest time on Saturday it didn’t appear Huskies would even get in position to win the game with a possible last-second touchdown. They led 2-0 after the first quarter due to the Thunderbirds conceding a safety.
    The visitors proceeded to score 23 straight points. Morrison hauled in touchdown receptions from 25 and 35 yards out in the second quarter from Thunderbirds quarterback Michael O’Connor. O’Connor hit receiver J.J. DesLauriers on a 15-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter, and the Huskies conceded a safety to conclude the surge by the visitors.
Huskies DB Payton Hall (#28) nails a Thunderbirds receiver.
    While the Thunderbirds offence scored points, the Huskies offence appeared to be stuck in the mud plagued by a number of dropped passes from receivers.
    The Huskies halted the bleeding early in the fourth quarter, when Siemens hit Samuel Baker for an eight-yard touchdown toss to cut the Thunderbirds lead to 23-9.
    O’Connor ran in a touchdown from six yards out, but the point after attempt was botched to hold UBC’s lead at 29-9.
    Siemens hit sophomore receiver Finley Easton with a 13-yard touchdown toss and Piok with a 33-yard scoring strike to cut the Thunderbirds lead to 29-23. The Thunderbirds conceded a safety with 59.3 seconds to play to cut their edge to 29-25 and give the Huskies one last drive from 75 yards out to try and win the game. That led to the dramatics at the end.
Alex Morrison (#85) makes one of his two TD catches. 
    Siemens completed 26-of-47 passes for 310 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions as the Huskies lost their fourth straight to fall to 2-4. O’Connor completed 37-of 51 passes for 466 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions for the Thunderbirds, who improved to 4-2 and locked up a playoff berth. Thunderbirds receiver Trivel Pinto caught 13 passes to lead all pass catchers with 156 yards receiving.
    With two weeks to go in the regular season, the Huskies still sit fourth in the Canada West Conference and hold the conference’s final playoff berth ahead of the U of Alberta Golden Bears and U of Manitoba Bisons, who are both 1-5.
    After Saturday’s heartbreaker to the Thunderbirds, the Huskies are at a turning point. They could let that affect them to the point where they tailspin right out of the post-season picture.
    They could also show true character and rally back from that disappointment, because they can still have a memorable season.
    The Huskies would look real impressive, if they can pull off the latter.
    Their first chance to get on the upswing occurs this coming Saturday, when they travel to Edmonton to take on the Golden Bears.

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Friday, 13 October 2017

Huskies shake away pesky Pronghorns with comeback

Logan McVeigh (#14) sets to embrace teammates after scoring an OT winner.
    The University of Saskatchewan Huskies men’s hockey team always seems to have a battle on their hands, when the University of Lethbridge Pronghorns come to town.
    On Friday night at the ancient Rutherford Rink, the Huskies needed some late game heroics to rally from a 3-2 deficit and pull out an exciting 4-3 double overtime victory. Trailing the Pronghorns 3-2 late in the third, the Huskies pulled netminder Jordon Cooke for an extra attacker.
    With 75 seconds to play, Huskies right-winger Levi Cable attempted a wraparound and his shot rebounded out to teammate Collin Shirley, who was alone in front of the Pronghorns goal. Shirley fired the equalizer home into an empty right side of the U of Lethbridge goal to force a 3-3 tie and send the U Sports regular season contest to overtime.
Centre Logan McVeigh gets set to fire a shot on goal for the Huskies.
    After a scoreless five minute four-on-four overtime period, the Huskie won the contest 44 seconds into a three-on-three second overtime session with a breakaway goal from centre Logan McVeigh. After a shot block in the Huskies end, McVeigh found himself in a race with Pronghorns captain Mitchell Maxwell for the puck into the centre ice zone.
    Maxwell toe picked and went down to allow McVeigh to have a clean rush into the Pronghorns zone. McVeigh smartly tucked a backhand shot past Pronghorns netminder Garret Hughson to win the game.
    Hughson had a spectacular night turning away 46 shots to take the loss in goal for the Pronghorns, who fell to 1-1-1.
    “It was a tight finish,” said McVeigh, whose Huskies improved to 3-0. “Coming back late in games, that is what good teams do.
Winger Collin Shirley (#11) celebrates scoring a game-tying goal.
    “We want to be that good team that can be down a goal late in the third and comeback, so that is good for us.”
    The Pronghorns protested at first thinking McVeigh hauled down Maxwell to get the breakaway. At full speed, it could appear that McVeigh committed an infraction, but that wasn’t the case.
    “They were pretty upset about it,” said McVeigh. “I thought it was just a battle for the puck.
    “I managed to stay on my feet, and he managed to fall over. It was just a hockey play.”
    The Huskies actually never held the lead in Friday’s encounter until McVeigh potted the winner in overtime.
    In the first period, rookie right-winger Tyler Maltby gave the Pronghorns a 1-0, but fifth-year left-winger Josh Roach tallied for the Huskies to send the teams into the first intermission locked in a 1-1 tie.
    The Huskies brought tonnes of pressure Hughson’s way in the second period, but the Pronghorns exited the frame with a 2-1 edge, when Maxwell fired home a shot from the slot with 59 seconds remaining in the stanza.
Pronghorns G Garret Hughson (#29) pokes the puck out of danger.
    At the 3:33 mark of the third, the Huskies tied the contest up at 2-2, when Roach found rookie left-winger Alex Forsberg on a backdoor feed. Forsberg made no mistake in firing the puck into an open cage.
    Just over three minutes later, sophomore right-winger Torrin White tipped home a point shot from Maxwell to put the Pronghorns up 3-2.
    That set the stage for the late heroics coming from Shirley and McVeigh for the Huskies. The pair have teamed up with Forsberg to form a dangerous offensive line for the Huskies in the early going of the campaign.
    “I love playing with Collin (Shirley) all the time,” said McVeigh. “To see him getting that equalizer late in the third, it is awesome.
    “Thankfully, I managed to get the overtime (winner).”
Netminder Jordon Cooke (#32) makes a big stop for the Huskies.
    While Hughson had to stand on his head, Huskies fourth-year star veteran goalie Jordon Cooke put on a strong performance turning away 27 shots to pick up the win in the U of S net.
    Friday’s game was a real high tempo contest with a lot of back-and-fourth action up and down the ice.
    The two sides go at it again on Saturday at 7 p.m. at Rutherford, and McVeigh is expecting another tough contest.
    “They are not usually that great of a team in the standings, but they always play us well,” said McVeigh. “They always play well in this rink.
    “Their goaltender played a heck of a game. They always play us hard, and thank goodness we got the win.”

Anderson steals victory for Pronghorns women’s team

Kira Bannatyne had an assist for the Huskies.
    Netminder Alicia Anderson turned into “the Great Wall” of Lethbridge on Friday night, and that spelled big trouble for the U of Saskatchewan Huskies women’s hockey team.
    The third-year Calgary product turned away 44 shots to back the host U of Lethbridge Pronghorns to a 2-1 overtime victory over the Huskies at the Nicholas Sheran Arena. Alli Borrow scored at the 4:02 mark of a four-on-four overtime period to give the Pronghorns (2-1) the win.
    The Huskies outshot the Pronghorns 21-9 in the opening frame, but came away only with a 1-0 lead on a tally from third-year forward Elizabeth Salyn. Rookie centre Chloe Smith and fifth-year defender Kira Bannatyne picked up assists on the play.
    Pronghorns fourth-year forward Brett Campbell scored to force a 1-1 tie at the 2:52 mark of the second.
    The Huskies, who were playing without star fifth-year captain Kaitlin Willoughby due to a suspected undisclosed injury, couldn’t find the go ahead goal despite hold a big edge in territorial play. Jasey Book stopped 20 shots to take the loss in net for the Huskies (1-1-1).
    The two teams go at it again on Saturday night in Lethbridge.

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Forsberg rediscovers offensive touch from past with Huskies

Jesse Forsberg has become a star offensive defenceman with the Huskies.
    It was a “Back to the Future” type season for Jesse Forsberg who has relived his minor hockey days offensively with the University of Saskatchewan Huskies men’s team.
    In his third year with the Huskies in 2016-17, the 24-year-old Waldheim product broke out as an offensive defenceman. Appearing in all 28 of his team’s regular season games, Forsberg topped all defencemen in Canada West conference scoring netting career highs with 11 goals and 16 assists.
    He was also a plus-eight in the plus-minus department, named a Canada West first team all-star, captured honours as the Mervyn “Red” Dutton trophy winner as the top defenceman in Canada West and was named a second team all-Canadian all-star.
    Forsberg’s production bettered all but one of the five complete seasons in the WHL. The last time he was near a point a game pace was in his only full season in the midget AAA ranks in 2008-09, when he picked up eight goals and 33 assists in 44 regular season games with the Beardy’s Blackhawks.
Jesse Forsberg works with the puck along the wall for the Huskies.
    In his first appearance with the Huskies this season last Saturday, Forsberg recorded a goal and two assists in a 6-0 victory over the University of Regina Cougars at the ancient Rutherford Rink.
    “It has been a lot of fun,” said Forsberg, who stands 6-feet and weighs 226 pounds. “Obviously, I was given a little more opportunity. I took it in full stride.
    “I am part of a really good power play unit, so that helps. I think I am just poised with the puck, and I don’t give it away.
    “I’ve always liked to jump into the play. I’ve got a little more confidence and a little more opportunity.”
    Way back in the 2008 WHL Bantam Draft, Forsberg was selected in the first round and 11th overall by the Prince George Cougars. Over five seasons in the major junior ranks, Forsberg appeared in 296 career regular season games split between the Cougars, Seattle Thunderbirds and Moose Jaw Warriors collecting 24 goals, 83 assists and 619 career penalty minutes.
Jesse Forsberg works the point.
    When he made it to the WHL, his role changed. Forsberg became a defensive defenceman who also had a tough guy edge.
    His best campaign offensively came as an overager in 2013-14, when he had 10 goals and 26 assists split over 60 regular season games with the Thunderbirds and Warriors.
    “I think I kind of got type cast into a certain role in junior,” said Forsberg. “You go in when you are 16, (and) you are the young guy on the outs looking in.
    “After a couple of seasons playing a role that maybe you weren’t used to and pretty soon that is how you start playing, you find success at it. I found success at being a good defensive (defenceman) and being tough, so that is kind of the way I played until I was 19 and 20 where I found my offence again.
    “Obviously (last season), I got to take a few steps and be an offensive guy.”
    When Forsberg first arrived with the Huskies, he still played a defensive defenceman and tough guy role.
    Huskies head coach Dave Adolph, who saw Forsberg play in bantam and midget, believed the rearguard still had the talent to be a major contributor offensively. While the offensive breakout has come, the Huskies bench boss said Forsberg’s forte is still his play in his own zone.
    “He probably is a better shutdown defenceman than he is an offensive defenceman, because he is so intense,” said Adolph. “I think he has just been allowed to grow here, and it is not me.
Jesse Forsberg wheels up the ice with the puck.
    “He’s worked at his craft. He now plays on our power play. (In Forsberg’s second season), he wasn’t on our power play. He is deadly on the point.
    “He is just so passionate. There isn’t enough players in our game anymore that are passionate like him.”
    One of the drawbacks Forsberg had in his game was his temper, and opponents would often try to trigger that to draw him into a penalty. Forsberg’s temper came to the surface during his rookie year, when the Huskies were eliminated from the 2015 post-season.
    In the final seconds in a 3-0 first round series deciding Game 3 loss to the Mount Royal University Cougars in Calgary, Forsberg was involved in a scrum. He was given a major penalty for spitting at an official, and the incident came when Forsberg was trying to say something in the heat of a frantic moment.
    The incident resulted in a 10-game suspension. Adolph said the Cougars were trying to agitate his club during that contest, and they succeeded in getting the best of Forsberg.
    “Jesse, obviously, decided he was going to protect our whole team,” said Adolph. “He got a little rambunctious.
    “He was kind of demoralized about it. I told Jesse that if he could suck it up and handle that and if he could come back and be twice the guy, we would put a letter on him just for persevering.
Jesse Forsberg can play sound defensively in his own zone.
    “Ever since then, he has trusted us. He knew he wasn’t going to be in trouble, and he knew we were going to allow him to grow and be a good player.”
    Forsberg admitted it was gut check moment during that point in time.
    “I really had to pay for it,” said Forsberg. “It kind of slowed down my whole season.
    “I was late coming in. I kind of had trouble finding the pace right away. It was kind of a reality check to just make sure I play the game within the rules, even though in my mind I thought I did there.
    “It is just kind of a reality check. It was a big turning point for sure.”
    After returning to full-time duty in his sophomore season, Forsberg was named one of the Huskies assistant captains.
    “It was a big honour, especially as a second year guy to get to wear that,” said Forsberg. “I am a pretty vocal guy.
    “It is something I have always been used to doing on every team that I have been on. To come in and have that honour as a young guy like that was definitely huge. It kind of made me think about the big picture.”
Huskies D Jesse Forsberg has always enjoyed joining the rush up ice.
    After helping the Huskies finish first in Canada West for a second straight campaign posting a 21-5-2 record last season, Forsberg and his team faced Mount Royal in a best-of-three Canada West semifinal series. The Cougars visibly tried to provoke Forsberg with subtle physical and verbal shots after the whistle, but the rearguard didn’t bite.
    In the two game sweep that saw the Huskies earn a berth to the University Cup national championship tournament in Fredericton, N.B., Forsberg didn’t take a single penalty.
    After helping the Huskies win the Canada West title and finish fourth at nationals in 2015-16, Forsberg experienced falling in the Canada West final 6-3 in a series deciding Game 3 at home against the U of Alberta Golden Bears last season.
    At the single-elimination University Cup tournament last March, the Huskies rebounded to down the York University Lions 1-0 in overtime in a quarter-final match and bomb the St. Francis University X-Men in 8-0 in a semifinal contest. The Dogs dropped a 5-3 heartbreaker to the powerhouse U of New Brunswick Varsity Reds in the championship final.
    Forsberg had a goal, an assist and was a plus-five in the Huskies three tournament games.
Jesse Forsberg celebrates scoring an OT winner for the Huskies last season.
 “I think we kind of had a different dynamic,” said Forsberg. “We’ve had different guys stepping up at different times.
    “You have to keep growing. You can’t be the same team over and over again. I think we’ve found that.”
    Away from the ice, Forsberg focuses on his studies in agriculture and bioresources. While he wants to be prepared to enter the working world after his time with the Huskies wraps up, he admits he would still like to take a crack at the professional ranks.
    “I think you are always keeping your options open,” said Forsberg, who is playing beside brother and skilled forward Alex with the Huskies this season. “Just keep playing for now and focus on winning here and getting an education, if the right opportunity come about, it would be hard to say no.”
    The Huskies (2-0) return to action tonight and Saturday when they host the University of Lethbridge Pronghorns (1-1) at 7 p.m. both nights at Rutherford.

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Thursday, 12 October 2017

Pickett becomes Hilltops sack master heading into playoffs

Rush end credits teammates on D-line for spectacular season

DL Riley Pickett had an outstanding regular season for the Hilltops.
    Riley Pickett will be the first to tell you he reaped individual benefits because of his team, and he really means it.
    The third-year rush end with the Saskatoon Hilltops led the Prairie Football Conference with nine sacks appearing in all eight of the team’s regular season games. Translated to a hypothetical 16-game regular season, Pickett’s numbers would double to 18 sacks, which would be a club record for some NFL teams.
    “It is pretty crazy, but I also couldn’t have done it without the help of course like my three other starting D-linemen, especially Tom Schnitzler,” said Pickett, who stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 230 pounds. “He taught me pretty much everything I know out here, and he has been a huge part of it.”
    Pickett said his individual success comes because of the ability for the Hilltops defensive line to play well as a unit. The graduate of Saskatoon’s Centennial Collegiate added he benefits from the work of Schnitzler, who starts at the other end spot, and starting defensive tackles Garth Knittig and Jesse McNabb.
    Schnitzler, who is an established fifth-year star, often gets double teamed every game, which gives Pickett a lot of one-on-one situations. At the moment, Pickett believes other offensive coordinators in the Canadian Junior Football League must gain a few headaches trying to figure out how to stop the Hilltops two starting defensive ends especially as the post-season is about to start.
    The Hilltops (7-1) open playoffs hosting a PFC semifinal match against the Winnipeg Rifles (4-4) at Sunday at 1 p.m. at Saskatoon Minor Football Field.
Hilltops DL Riley Pickett sacks an Ottawa Sooners quarterback.
    “It is a huge bind,” said Pickett. “I like to think of our D-line like the (NFL’s) Houston Texans.
    “They have J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney coming off both edges. You can’t guard both of them, so one of us is going to have success.”
    Pickett had his eyes opened in regards to how much the defensive line has to play as unit in order to succeed during his rookie season with the Hilltops in 2015. In that CJFL championship campaign, the Toppers starting defensive line was made up of Schnitzler, defensive end Blake Hermann and defensive tackles Blade Adams and Matt Kozun.
    As a unit, that foursome had the ability to fold an opponent’s offensive front in half causing most plays to disintegrate at the line of scrimmage. That sight burned some big images into Pickett’s head.
    “It was crazy,” said Pickett. “Matt Kozun and Blake Adams are two of the best defensive linemen I have ever seen play and Blake Hermann especially as well.
    “I learned a lot from all of them. I just learned how to win pretty much.”
    Adams and Kozun graduated from the Hilltops following the 2015 campaign. Hermann departed from the program following the 2016 season.
    As Pickett took on a bigger role with those departures, the 20-year-old didn’t want to let the level of play on the Hilltops defensive line drop off.
Hilltops DL Riley Pickett gets set to rush the quarterback.
    “There was a lot of pressure,” said Pickett. “I knew I had to come in and be productive.
    “Obviously, I didn’t think I was going to have the season that I had. I was just flying around out there and just using the six inches between the ears.”
    Hilltops head coach Tom Sargeant has been pumped to see Pickett’s progression.
    “Riley Pickett has been outstanding,” said Sargeant. “A third-year kid out of Centennial, he has come in, and he has had a great off-season.
    “He is so much bigger and stronger. He has just done a great job of getting off blocks. For sure, he led the league in sacks with nine and was a true impact player as a rush end and on special teams with his presence and his power.
    “He is an impact player in the blue and gold for sure.”
    Sargeant said Pickett has a number of attributes which make it extremely tough for opponents to block him in a one-on-one setting.
    “He (Pickett) is quite strong and agile and all things you look for in a rush end,” said Sargeant. “He has certainly got that. As I said, very happy with his performance, but I expect him to play even better in the playoffs.”
    Pickett has enjoyed being part of the Hilltops CJFL championship runs in each of the past two seasons. He would like to be a big part in helping the team win a fourth straight CJFL title this year but knows there is still a long way to go before the Canadian Bowl championship trophy is handed out.
The Hilltops have enjoyed a few sack celebrations with Riley Pickett (#43).
    “We’re just taking it day by day having good practices and building off of it,” said Pickett. “Four more “Ws” and hopefully we can hoist that cup above the head.”
    With the Rifles having concluded the regular season posting a 35-22 home victory over the Regina Thunder on Oct. 7, Sargeant said his players need to keep their attention on the task at hand.
    “At the end of the day right now all of our focus is on the Winnipeg Rifles,” said Sargeant. “They are a team on the rise and getting better. They took it to Regina.
    “They show some good game film and showed that they are worthy and they are ready. Hey, we have to come out and play our Sunday best on Sunday at our home and defend home field turf. That is what it is all about.”

Blades’ Hebig on fire since return, other notes

Cameron Hebig gets set to drive a shot on goal for the Blades.
    It has been said absence makes the heart grow fonder, and in the case of Cameron Hebig of the Saskatoon Blades, absence makes you appreciate the star centre that much more on his return.
    Hebig missed the entire 2016-17 campaign due to an upper body injury that was never clearly diagnosed. Entering the current campaign, Hebig last suited up for his hometown Blades in a regular season game back on March 19, 2016, when he had a goal and an assist in a 3-2 home ice victory over the Prince Albert Raiders. During that season, he finished with 26 goals and 43 assists in 59 games.
    In four appearances this season, Hebig has recorded four goals, five assists and a plus-one rating in the plus-minus department. During a 6-4 road victory over the Memorial Cup hosting Pats in Regina on Wednesday, Hebig, who stands 5-foot-10 and weighs 185 pounds, recorded two goals, two assists and a plus-two rating.
    He helped set up the winning goal by linemate Bradly Goethals at the 5:03 mark of the second period.
    Since stepping on the ice for his overage campaign, Hebig has displayed the speed and skill that makes him one of the WHL’s elite players. When he is on the ice, you can tell he sees the game at a level higher than most other players in the major junior ranks.
    It also feels like you notice him that much more on the ice after the Blades had to march on without him for a full campaign.
  • With a 6-4 loss to the Blades, the Pats fell to 3-4-1. Having finished first in the entire WHL with a 52-12-7-1 record last season and advance to the WHL championship series before falling to the Seattle Thunderbirds in six games, I am starting to sense a few major junior fans in Regina are getting antsy. Due to the fact the Pats will host the Memorial Cup this May, the early results don’t inspire confidence by some of the Regina faithful. The Pats aren’t the same team without Adam Brooks, Connor Hobbs et al.
  • The WHL regular season schedule will shrink to 68 games next season from the current 72-game slate. That announcement was made Oct. 5. I think that was a good move. Even if it is a small amount, teams will have a little more time for practice lighten up on travel from going to a couple of extra road games. Teams might also get to work with more schedules of playing on Saturday night and being off until Wednesday. One of the benefits of the social media era is players seem much more connected to their families than the past, which is a good thing. Saturday’s are often none curfew nights where players can mingle with their families, when teams don’t play again until the following Wednesday. A few more family nights like these are always appreciated.
  • How great is it to have the Saskatchewan Roughriders at 8-6 with three of their last four regular season games to be played at home. Currently sitting third in the CFL’s West Division, it is great to have the Roughriders in a healthy spot in the playoff race after two seasons of struggle.
  • The most priceless reaction of the week has to Kohl Bauml, who is the third-year standout centre for the University of Saskatchewan Huskies men’s hockey team. With his Huskies leading the visiting U of Regina Cougars 4-0 at the ancient Rutherford Rink, Bauml attempted a high clear out of his own zone near the midway point of the third period. The puck hit the beams in the roof producing the first “rust break” of the current campaign. In a mix of horror and humour, Bauml yelled out, “Oh no.” The ensuing clean up went by quickly, and the Huskies skated away with a 6-0 win. The Huskies host the U of Lethbridge Pronghorns at Friday at 7 p.m. at Rutherford.
  • Kaitlin Willoughby. Go see her play now. The fifth-year captain of the University of Saskatchewan Huskies women’s hockey team is “the franchise.” While the regular season is just two-games old, it seems like it will be just past mid-March before you know it and her U Sports career will be over. The 22-year-old Prince Albert product is a special player, so take advantage of every chance there is to stop at Rutherford to see Willoughby play for the Huskies women’s team. Their next home date is Oct. 20, when the Huskies host the U of Manitoba Bisons at 7 p.m. at Rutherford.

Video of the week

    The below carpool karaoke video produced by Huskie Athletics featuring Emma Nutter and Kori Herner of the Huskies women’s hockey team, Jordon Cooke of the Huskies men’s hockey team, C.J. Gavlas of the U of Saskatchewan Huskies men’s volleyball team and host Connor Jay is just fun.
    It was revealed on Sunday. Hopefully this helps put you in a good mood and provides a few chuckles.

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Monday, 9 October 2017

Hilltops show off big game mystique

Adam Machart had a big game in the Hilltops win in Edmonton.
    The Saskatoon Hilltops always rise to the occasion, when the game gets big.
    On Saturday night at Clarke Park in Edmonton, the Hilltops took on the host Huskies in a winner take all battle for first place in the Prairie Football Conference. The Huskies held a 14-10 lead at halftime, but the Hilltops scored 21 points in the third quarter to surge ahead 31-14.
    Edmonton pushed back in the final quarter, but the Hilltops came away with a gritty 38-28 victory.
    With the Hilltops victory, both teams finish with 7-1 records. The Hilltops take the standings tiebreaker for top spot due to their victory over the Huskies, which was the only head-to-head meeting between the clubs.
    In the third quarter, the Hilltops went ahead 17-14 on a touchdown run by Adam Machart and their edge extended to 31-14 thanks to a pair of rushing majors from Joshua Ewanchyna.
    The Huskies pushed back and the Hilltops lead shrank to 35-28 with 2:51 to play. A field goal from James Vause with 71 seconds to play sealed victory.
QB Jordan Walls played a game manager role on Saturday.
    Machart and Ewanchyna proved to be the huge dual punch to help the Hilltops surge out to a win. Machart carried the ball 20 times for 143 yards to go with his third quarter score. Ewanchyna piled up 100 yards on 17 carries to go with his two rushing majors.
    In the first quarter, Linebacker Riley Keating blocked a punt and fellow linebacker Adam Benkic recovered the ball to score a touchdown.
    Vause made three of his four field goal attempts and the Hilltops also received a rouge to round out their scoring.
    Quarterback Jordan Walls completed 9-of-21 passes for 132 yards.
    Defensive back Luke Melnyk had nine solo tackles and an interception for the Hilltops. Defensive lineman Tom Schnitzler had a sack for Saskatoon.
    Huskies quarterback Brad Launhardt completed 22 of 42 passes for 266 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Running back Brandt Burzuk ran the ball 14 times for 133 yards.
    Linebacker Jassen Brown had eight solo tackles for the Huskies.
    Thanks to finishing first in the PFC, the Hilltops will have home field advantage throughout their run in the Canadian Junior Football League playoffs.
    Big credit has to be given to Hilltops head coach Tom Sargeant and his staff for ensuring the Hilltops are again prepared for when the big game lights shine their brightest. The Toppers consistently find another gear and play at a higher level when the opponent is tougher and the game is bigger. They thrive in that challenge. 
The Hilltops get to enjoy the spoils of another first place finish.
    The only time they wouldn’t play at home is if they make the Canadian Bowl championship game, which will be hosted by the winner of the Ontario Football Conference. Saskatoon has won the Canadian Bowl for the last three straight years and six times over the past seven years.
    The Hilltops begin their run through the playoffs this coming Sunday, when they host the Winnipeg Rifles (4-4) at 1 p.m. at Saskatoon Minor Football Field.
    The Huskies host the other semifinal against the Regina Thunders (5-3) also this coming Sunday.

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