Thursday, 20 October 2016

First step on playoff road a big one for Hilltops

Thunder provide a big challenge to defending CJFL champs

Hilltops running back Logan Fischer charges through the Thunder defence.
    The first round of the playoffs won’t be a breeze this time for the Saskatoon Hilltops.
    Usually when the Toppers top the Prairie Football Conference standings, they open the playoffs taking on an opponent in a PFC semifinal match that will have a post-season feel but victory will still almost be a certainty for the venerable Canadian Junior Football League team. After finishing first in the 2016 campaign with an 8-1 mark, the Hilltops open the playoffs with a rivalry game.
    On Sunday at 1 p.m. at Saskatoon Minor Football Field, the Hilltops host the Regina Thunder in a PFC semifinal match. The Thunder finished fourth in the conference with a 5-4 mark, where two of their losses came to the Hilltops and two came against the second place Calgary Colts (7-2).
    Both of the head-to-head matches between the Hilltops and Thunder were close. On Sept. 10, the Hilltops slipped past the Thunder 20-18 at SMF Field. On Oct. 1 in the final clash between the two clubs at old Mosaic Stadium, the Hilltops trailed the Thunder 26-16 with 2:21 to play in the fourth quarter but rallied for a 30-26 victory.
Sawyer Buettner had a strong season starting at QB for the Thunder.
    Saskatoon also took both head-to-head meetings last season.
    The Hilltops and Thunder know each other extremely well, and both teams are led by strong coaching staffs with Scott MacAulay heading the Regina side and Tom Sargeant leading the Saskatoon side. The two clubs have combined to win the last six straight CJFL championships, with the Thunder claiming victory in 2013 and Hilltops capturing the Canadian Bowl in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2015.
    Both teams will likely try plays on Sunday they haven’t run all season to catch each other by surprise.
    It is common for teams to practice a certain set of plays all season that aren’t used in games, so they don’t show up on any video. When it comes playoffs, these plays are unleashed.
    The Thunder are entering this contest with a lot of confidence coming from two straight wins. The first of those victories came on Oct. 9, when the Thunder downed the Colts 30-23. After some frustrating setbacks against the conference’s two top teams, that win will give the Thunder traction for getting over a hump.
Jared Andreychuk surpassed 2,000 passing this season for the Hilltops.
    The Hilltops head into the post-season with six-straight wins. Their only loss came back on Aug. 28, when they dropped a 36-21 decision to the Colts at SMF Field. Since that time, the Toppers have improved greatly, and their play is resembling the level that saw them with the CJFL championship in each of the last two years.
    Regina heads into the clash in capable hands at quarterback. Second year Moose Jaw product Sawyer Buettner has had an outstanding season completing 153-of-230 passes for 1,912 yards, 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
    He missed the Thunder’s last game due to an undisclosed injury, when they thrashed the Wildcats in Edmonton 69-18. Rookie Brock Sich started that contest completing 20-of-28 passes for 352 yards, five touchdown passes and one interception.
    The Thunder have a whole host of playmakers on both sides of the ball, which makes them a big threat to create an upset. They are the last club to defeat the Hilltops in the playoffs with a 21-16 victory in the 2013 PFC final in Saskatoon.
RB Victor St. Pierre-Laviolette tears downfield for the Thunders.
    Saskatoon has the edge in intangibles as the Hilltops always seem to rise to the occasion when a big challenge is ahead of them. They get a huge boost of confidence from the fact that they are led by fifth-year quarterback Jared Andreychuk.
    Andreychuk is the team’s unquestioned fearless leader who is able to immediately bring his side up to another level. With him at the controls, the Hilltop almost have an aura that no matter what bad things happen to them in a game they will find a way to win.
    Throwing to almost a new group of regular receivers, Andreychuk had arguably his finest year with the Hilltops completing 121-of-203 passes for 2,008 yards, 22 touchdown passes and seven interceptions. He is surrounded by a group on both sides of the ball that can make plays at any time.
    The rivalry between the Thunder and Hilltops is relatively a new one with the Regina side hitting the field for its inaugural season in 2000. For about the past seven years, it has become one of the most compelling rivalries in the Canadian junior and post-secondary ranks.
Two Hilltops defenders take down Thunder OL Brayden Moroz.
    Both sides also mirror each other in conducting themselves with great class. While they will go to war on the field, the two teams do have a genuine respect for each other when the game is over.
    On Sunday, you can expect them to hold another classic. When the dust settles after that clash, the winner has a good chance of ensuring the Canadian Bowl stays in Saskatchewan for a seventh straight season.

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