Saturday, 12 September 2015

Hilltops rally with fourth quarter magic

Evan Turkington cradles in the winning TD for the Hilltops.
    REGINA – Jared Andreychuk had the moment all quarterbacks dream about.
    With under three minutes to play and his Saskatoon Hilltops trailing the host Regina Thunder 25-19 on Saturday night at Mosaic Stadium, the fourth-year signal caller took the field to lead a two-minute drill type drive to win the Canadian Junior Football League contest. Andreychuk engineered a 75-yard march that ended with him hooking up with receiver Evan Turkington on a 13-yard scoring toss. Turkington made a twisting circus catch in the Regina end zone to give the Toppers a 26-25 lead with 75 seconds to play before 825 spectators.
    That score held up as the final result. On the ensuing Regina series, Hilltops linebacker Cole Benkic intercepted Thunder quarterback Jaeden Marwick to seal the outcome that allowed the Hilltops to improve to 5-0 to remain first in the Prairie Football Conference. The Thunder, who held an 18-7 lead at halftime, fell to 3-2 with the loss to remain second in the PFC.
    “It is just a lot of fun,” said Andreychuk. “Even at halftime, we were down. We are not having the best game, but we are having fun.
    “It is a great competition with the Regina Thunder. You are always nervous coming in here, but that is why you play football is for games like this. It was just great to come away with a win today.”
    Saturday’s clash looked like it would be a back-and-forth game until a key turning point occurred late in the first half. With Regina holding an 11-7 edge, the Hilltops ran a play-action pass on a short yardage situation near midfield, but Andreychuk was intercepted thanks to a stellar defensive play by Thunder linebacker Paul Toth.
    Regina drove down to the Saskatoon two, and Marwick muscled in for a score on a running play from two yards out to put the Thunder up 18-7 going into halftime.
    The Hilltops opened the second half cutting the gap to 18-10, when kicker Brett Thorarinsson booted a 23-yard field goal on a series that was set up by an interception from defensive back Luke Melnyk.
    The Thunder responded with just under five minutes to play in the third quarter, when Marwick hit Thomas Bresciani on a scoring toss from nine yards out to put the hosts up 25-10.
    Going into the fourth quarter, the Hilltops cued the comeback. Just 1:38 into the final frame, Andreychuk connected with receiver Davis Mitchell on a seven-yard scoring toss to cut the Thunder edge 25-17.
Cole Benkic returns an interception for the Hilltops.
    With 5:26 to play in the fourth, the Thunder conceded a safety after being pinned deep in their own end, which cut their lead to 25-19. That set the scene for the Toppers late game-winning drive.
    “I think just the way we came out of the locker room in the second half was huge,” said Andreychuk. “It is easy to have your head down, when you’re down a couple of touchdowns at half, and we came out hot.
    “We scored a field goal right off the bat. We got shut down a little bit on that drive, but just kept it rolling throughout that second half. We are second half team. That is what we do.”
    Saskatoon swept the season series with Regina 2-0 having downed the Thunder 35-17 at Saskatoon Minor Football Field on Sept. 5. Thanks to the sweep, the Hilltops won Shrine Bowl, which is given to the team that wins the regular season series between the two clubs. The Thunder won both encounters with the Hilltops last season to take the Shrine Bowl.
    Andreychuk completed 21 of 40 passes for 336 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions for the Hilltops on Saturday, while Marwick completed 24 of 41 passes for 420 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions for the Thunder.
    While the two teams piled up the offensive yards with Regina outgaining Saskatoon 517 to 447, the defences on both sides made big plays as well. There were also some obvious blown calls by the officials, but the mistakes evened out both ways.
Jared Andreychuk fires a pass downfield for the Hilltops.
    Mitchell had a TD catch in the second quarter to account for Saskatoon’s first score. Tailback Victor St. Pierre Laviolette had a 27 yard scoring catch, while Kristopher Calcutt kicked a field goal and a rouge from a missed field goal to account for the Thunder’s first 11 points.
    Entering the 2015 regular season, the Thunder had won their four previous encounters against the Hilltops including action in the regular season and playoffs. Andreychuk was pleased his club could turn the tables on their provincial rivals winning both regular season head-to-head matches in the current campaign.
    “It is just a great feeling beating Regina,” said Andreychuk. “Every year you circle this on your calendar. It is just an unreal day.”
    The Hilltops return to action on Sept. 20, when they host the Edmonton Huskies (1-3) at 1 p.m. at Saskatoon Minor Football Field.

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