Sunday, 3 May 2015

Saskatoon will always have a heart for the Hilltops

Logan Fischer runs the ball at the Hilltops spring camp scrimmage.
    Love for the Hilltops junior football club is alive and well in Saskatoon, and it feels like that might be something that never changes.
    As the population of the Bridge City and surrounding suburbs has ballooned to 300,000 due to an influx of at least 50,000 people over the last nine years, the Hilltops still have a loyal fan base. The supporters might not always be present for games at Saskatoon Minor Football Field, which was known as Gordie Howe Bowl for most of its life, but they are alert to what the team is up to.
    On Oct. 26 of last year, the Hilltops hosted another Prairie Football Conference title game and looked dynamic in disposing of the surging Calgary Colts 27-7. An appreciative crowd of 1,014 cheered the blue and gold to victory that day. While the Hilltops have played before much bigger crowds in their history, news of their win and the fact they advanced to another national final spread quickly over social media lines.
    Soon, the Hilltops were the talk of the town. A day after that victory, they hosted the Riderville North Quarterback Luncheon in conjunction with the CFL's Saskatchewan Roughriders at TCU Place. The event was packed, and it gave the Hilltops a warm kick off towards two weeks of preparation for the CJFL title game, the Canadian Bowl.
    The Toppers proceeded to travel to Langley, B.C., where they disposed of the host Rams 39-14 on Nov. 8. A healthy following of supporters made the trip to B.C. to witness the championship victory.
The Hilltops offensive and defensive lines battle in the trenches.
    On Sunday, the Hilltops hosted a Blue and Gold scrimmage game at Saskatoon Minor Football Field to conclude a three day spring camp. The scrimmage attracted a large gathering of supporters. The followers won't go away.
    The storied franchise has won 17 Canadian Junior Football League championships since the modern version of the club was formed back in 1947. The Hilltops actually appeared in their first national final in only their second season falling 14-10 to the host Hamilton Wildcats in the 1948 title game.
    Saskatoon would capture its first national title in 1953, when the Hilltops thumped the Windsor AKO Fratmen 34-6. Since that first win, the Hilltops have captured at least one national championship in every decade that followed. When Tom Sargeant became head coach in 1998, the Hilltops would go on to win eight of their national titles, including four in the last five years.
    Pretty much every generation that has grown up or moved to become part of the Saskatoon community has a memory of a Hilltops championship run. In a lot of ways, the Hilltops symbolize how the citizens of Saskatoon like to see themselves. The Hilltops work hard, carry themselves with respect, are disciplined and are tough.
Davis Mitchell hauls in a pass.
    The tough aspect is something Saskatoon citizens really love about the Toppers, who play their contests out of what is considered the tougher part of town in the city's west side. The reverence for that characteristic of the club is similar to the reverence citizens of Pittsburgh have for the blue-collar Steelers of the NFL.
    Saskatoon residents have enjoyed the fact the Hilltops have fielded tough as nails players like Ron Atchison and Larry Wruck in their distance past and Jorgen Hus and Graig Newman in recent years.
    They can also win with flare and style. Sheldon Ball called signals for an explosive and dynamic offence for the team as a quarterback in the 1990s. He has now been the team's offensive coordinator for about a decade, and the players he guides can put up points in a hurry.
    That was seen last year when starting quarterback Jared Andreychuk put up 300-yard passing games in the PFC final and the Canadian Bowl, when the Hilltops looked fairly smooth.
    During the 1980s and early 1990s, the once very healthy CJFL saw a number of franchises fold. It was once the premier league for amateur football in Canada, but it hasn't held that distinction for at least four decades.
    Over that time, the Hilltops have remained healthy. A hard working board of directors has ensured the team continued to be a first-class franchise.
    Going into the 2015, the Hilltops will return most of their players from the year before. Only four players exhausted their eligibility following the 2014 campaign, and a handful veterans will be displaced by incoming rookies.
    Optimism is high the Hilltops will have another exciting campaign. Their loyal following will be there, and hopefully, they can share news of the team's exploits to attract new followers. That will ensure the team will be engrained in the community's fabric for decades to come.

Huskies aim to erase recent disappointments

Mitch Hillis sprints downfield at the Huskies spring camp scrimmage.
    The University of Saskatchewan Huskies football team knows all they can do is worry about the present and not worry about the recent past.
    The Dogs concluded their spring camp with a Green and White scrimmage on Sunday, and they went through the weekend just focusing on the business at hand. The annual Dogs' Breakfast on Thursday morning opened the weekend's festivities as 25 new recruits were revealed to a crowd of about 2,000 at Prairieland Park.
    Most of the roster from the squad that went 6-2 during the 2014 regular season will return in 2015, and the returnees looked good. In the early going, the Huskies have to be considered a favourite to win the Canada West title.
    When thoughts turn to the post-season, expectations get tempered. U of S has lost its last six straight playoff contests and is 1-9 in its last 10 post-season games. They last won the Canada West title in 2006.
    The Huskies improved steadily during the course of last season and hosted their first playoff game since 2010. They took a 37-18 lead in the third quarter of a Canada West semifinal contest against the U of Manitoba Bisons, but the Bisons rallied for a 47-39 victory.
    The comeback came because the Bisons scored 14 points off a pair of interceptions including a pick-six, a major coming off a blocked punt, a field goal off a fumble and a safety caused by a bad long snap.
    During the spring camp, not much was said about the post-season implosion against the Bisons. The Huskies players and coaches just focused on getting better and getting the newcomers used to the team's systems.
Drew Burko unloads a pass at the Huskies spring camp scrimmage.
    Veteran quarterback Drew Burko, who is entering his fourth year of eligibility, looked good during his reps in the scrimmage. Second-year signal caller Kyle Siemens looked really good. The offence once again has a huge stable of standout running backs.
    The defence also came through with big stops, and it will be anchored by veterans like linebacker Dylan Kemp and defensive back Chris Friesen, who will both be entering their fifth and final years of eligibility. The biggest addition is linebacker Justin Filteau, who starred with CJFL's Hilltops.
    When main training camps rolls around August, the Huskies have to follow the old cliché in taking each week as it comes and also hope the injury bug is kind. When the post-season arrives, it is expected to be a wide open with regards who could win it all, because most of the other teams in Canada West have gone through big changes in the off-season.
    The Huskies continuity might give them a big edge.

    If you have any comments about this blog, feel free to email them to To see more pictures of the Hilltops and Huskies respective scrimmages, check out Twitter @StanksSports.