Monday, 28 November 2016

Stars a hidden gem in Saskatoon’s sports scene

The Stars are all smiles after scoring a goal at the Agriplace Arena.
    They often get overshadowed, but one of Saskatoon’s most successful teams resides in a little rink call the Agriplace Arena in the north end of town.
    Playing mainly in front of family and friends for the majority of their games, the Saskatoon Stars have piled up the wins and made their name known on the national stage. From 2010-12, they made three straight appearances in the Saskatchewan Female Midget AAA Hockey League championship series and won the prestigious Mac’s Midget AAA tournament title in the 2010-11 campaign.
    That era of the Stars featured current Canadian senior national team member Emily Clark, Katie Sigurdson, Lauren Zary, Marley Ervine, Sara Greschner, Kennedy Harris, Brooke Mutch and Alyssa Dobler. The latter five of that group moved on to help the University of Saskatchewan Huskies win their first Canada West conference title coming in the 2013-14 campaign.
Willow Slobodzian is a gifted offensive defender.
    Before the start of the 2014-15 campaign, Greg Slobodzian took over as the Stars head coach and the team reached new heights. In Slobodzian’s first campaign, the Stars posted a 45-5 overall record, claimed a second Mac’s title, their first SFMAAAHL championship and first Western regional banner. The season finished with a bronze medal game win at the Esso Cup national championship tournament in Red Deer.
    The Stars were powered by the dynamic duo of Sophie Shirley and Nara Elia that season. Both currently play on the Okanagan Hockey Academy’s female prep team, and Shirley has also found a home in Canada’s national team system playing with the under-18 squad last year.
    Shirley and Elia departed after the 2014-15 season and the Stars proceeded to follow up with an amazing 2015-16 campaign. They posted a 45-13 overall record, won a second SFMAAAHL title and second Western regional banner and finished fourth at the Esso Cup in Weyburn.
    This season, the Stars have stormed out of the gates again posting a 10-1-1 record to sit first in the SFMAAAHL.
Skilled forward Mackenna Parker has gifted smarts on the ice.
    On Sunday at the Agriplace Arena, they bombed the Weyburn Southern Range Gold Wings 11-1, while dominating with a 63-10 edge in shots.
    Their two biggest names led the way in 16-year-olds Mackenna Parker and captain Willow Slobodzian, who both attended Hockey Canada’s selection camp for its under-18 women’s national team in August. Parker, who has gifted smarts, had a goal and three assists, while Slobodzian, a smooth skating offensive defender, rocketed home two goals and added a helper.
    What has to be scary for opponents is that fact the Stars are bunch of talented and hard-working players. In that romp over Weyburn, Anna Leschyshyn had a pair of goals and an assist. Singles came off the sticks of Jayda Sachs, Jordyn Gerlitz, Abby DeCorby, Kianna Dietz, Abby Shirley and Jordyn Holmes. Rookie goalie Arden Kliewer made nine stops to pick up the win in net.
    The list of goal scorers didn’t include standouts Grace Shirley and Joelle Fiala. Both turned heads last season as underage 14-year-old rookies and are just that much better one year later.
Anna Leschyshyn gets open for a pass on the wing.
    Taya McKersie had the Gold Wings (0-14) lone reply, while Loghan Hennes turned away 52 shots going the distance in the Weyburn goal.
    On Monday, the Stars traveled to Melville for a first place showdown with the Prairie Fire and skated away with 5-1 victory. Parker had a hat trick, while Gerlitz and Julia Rongve had singles. Sophomore Jordan Ivanco made 27 stops to earn the win in goal.
    Megan Leblanc replied for the Prairie Fire, who fell to 10-3. Ashlyn Taillon made 23 stops to take the loss in the Melville net.
    With Greg Slobodzian and assistant coaches Curtis Leschyshyn and Jason Schneider, the Stars have a staff that could run the bench of a Western Hockey League team.
    They also have to be excited about the group of players they have to work with. The bench bosses know they had a driven group that wasn’t going to skip any steps in off-season training. The coaches had to be eagerly anticipating how much faster and stronger their girls were going to be when they came to training camp.
    When the Stars returning players hit the ice, the improvement in their physical power was noticeable. Their wide open style became that much more difficult to stop and impressive to watch.
    They do it all without much media attention, but that is something these girls don’t notice. They are humble enough they blush at the attention they do get.
    For now, the Stars get to enjoy the journey of going through another season, where the rink is the greatest place to be. Next up is a two-game series against the Prairie Fire at the Agriplace Arena. The two clubs meet this coming Saturday at 7:45 p.m. and this coming Sunday at 2:15 p.m.
    From Dec. 26, 2016 to Jan. 1, 2017, the Stars will again be playing at Mac’s.
    It wouldn’t be a surprise to see them in the final of that event and playing hockey throughout March and April on another long playoff run.

Back in the Express with Dukate

Sabine Dukate sizes up an offensive situation for the Huskies.
    I was back in the pages of the Saskatoon Express last week with a feature story on Sabine Dukate, who is the starting point guard for the University of Saskatchewan Huskies women’s basketball team.
    The 23-year-old, who is in her sophomore season, came to the Huskies from Ventspiils, Latvia. She played a big role in helping the Huskies captured their first ever U Sports national championship.
    In the U Sports title game last March, Dukate nailed four of seven shots from three-point range, recorded 22 points, seven rebounds, seven assists and three steals to power the Huskies past the Ryerson University Rams 85-71.
    The story on Dukate can be found right here.

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Saturday, 26 November 2016

Tigers roar again in the WHL

Medicine Hat returns to elite status after one rebuild year

Zach Fischer celebrates scoring a goal for the Tigers.
    It didn’t take the Medicine Hat Tigers long to start looking like themselves again, which means they alone are worth the price of admission on any of their Western Hockey League game nights.
    Last year, the Tigers saw their run of making the WHL playoffs for 13 consecutive years come to an end. Posting a 30-37-3-2 record in the regular season, the Tigers faced the Edmonton Oil Kings in a standings tiebreaking game for the final playoff berth in the WHL’s Eastern Conference and came away on the wrong end of a 6-4 final.
    After just over a third into the current campaign, the Tigers are back to their high speed and high skill form.
    On Saturday night at the SaskTel Centre, the orange and black systematically dismantled the host Saskatoon Blades 8-2 before 3,802 stunned spectators. The win was Medicine Hat’s ninth straight victory and has vaulted the Tigers to the top of the overall WHL standings with a 20-5-1 mark.
Max Gerlach snipes his hat trick goal for the Tigers.
    The Everett Silvertips (18-3-4) trail the Tigers by a point for first overall with a game in hand.
Veteran Tigers head coach and general manager Shaun Clouston has no complaints about where his team is at.
    “It has been great,” said Clouston. “I think our older guys, our leaders are doing a terrific job of making sure the room is ready every night.
    “We’ve got lots of guys contributing. We’ve had some guys really step up and have breakout years. (Mark) Rassell and (Zach) Fischer are good players and they just really had breakout seasons.
    “James Hamblin who was 16-years-old last year, he has taken big strides. We are getting contributions from our imports. I think those two additions with (Kristians) Rubins and (John) Dahlstrom really helped us.”
    The only big down parts the Tigers faced against Saskatoon came from the fact Blades left-winger Braylon Shmyr opened the game’s scoring at the 1:56 mark of the first period, and he added a second marker with 53.8 seconds to play in the opening frame to ensure both sides entered the first intermission locked in a 2-2 tie.
Chad Butcher circles in the offensive zone for the Tigers.
    The rest of the contest belonged to the Tigers. They transitioned up ice at a lightning pace stringing together various quick passes and were on top of Blades goaltenders Logan Flodell and then Brock Hamm with prime scoring chances. Medicine Hat also kept Saskatoon pinned in its own zone with a fairly aggressive forecheck.
    Fischer and offensive defenceman David Quenneville netted the Tigers first period tallies. The visitors blew the roof off the building in the second frame. Overage centre Chad Butcher scored 17 seconds into the middle stanza and right-winger Max Gerlach netted a hat trick, which included two tallies on impressive snipes, to put the Tigers up 6-2.
    Flodell was chased after the Tigers fourth goal at the 2:27 mark of the second turning away 17-of-21 shots sent his way. Hamm stopped 18-of-22 shots sent his direction as the Blade dropped to 10-16-1.
    In the third, Butcher collected his second goal of the night and Dahlstrom added a single to round out the blowout score. Netminder Nick Schneider turned away 22 shots to pick up the win in Medicine Hat’s goal.
    The Tigers effort was businesslike. After each goal, the players took part in a small celebration and calmly skated into position for the next faceoff.
David Quenneville rushes into the offensive zone for the Tigers.
    “It was pretty close there for a bit,” said Quenneville, who had an assist to go along with his goal. “We just played our game, and the floodgates blew open.
    “They were bound to fly open for a time being there, and they did. Honestly, we could have had five or six more, which is really exciting. It shows that when a game is pretty out of hand like it was tonight, that we don’t stop. That is real important for our group.”
    Clouston said one of the big keys this season was the fact his club stuck with a younger group of inexperienced defencemen last season. The Tigers usually like to keep a core of four to five blue-liners together over a three-year period to create a base and chemistry at that position.
    Medicine Hat’s back end has always been key in helping the Tigers quickly transitioning up ice with a quick first pass on to the tape of the stick of a forward striding at full speed. Clouston didn’t want to waive from his team’s style.
    “We knew that there was a certain way that we like to play,” said Clouston. “We could have changed our style a little bit (last season).
    “It might have helped us for the short term. We kept playing the same way and practicing the same way.
    “When we finally got through all our injuries and got healthy, it was starting to pay dividends towards the end of the season, and I think that is continuing this year.”
Goaltender Nick Schneider passes a puck up the boards for the Tigers.
    While he didn’t have an active night against the Blades, Schneider has been solid in his second full season as the Tigers starting goalie after spending about a season and a half as a backup. In 21 games in the current campaign, he has posted an 18-2-1 record, a 2.70 goals against average and a .905 save percentage. Clouston said Schneider has come a long way.
    “Last year, he struggled at the start of the year,” said Clouston. “It was his first opportunity to be the number one guy. It was a major challenge for him.
    “The way things worked out by the end of the year he was that number one guy again. Austin Lotz was with us for a short time, but had a season ending injury. By the end of the season, Schneids had kind of battled through his adversity and grew a lot from that experience, and that has carried over to this year.”
    Quenneville, who is in his third full season with the Tabbies, said it was important for his side to carry on and duplicate the team’s storied successes of the past. He believes his Tigers are getting back to that spot.
Captain Clayton Kirichenko gets set to drive a shot on goal for the Tigers.
    “Last year wasn’t our year, and we wanted to really get back to being a high caliber team in the Western Hockey League and dominating,” said Quenneville. “I think we have done that so far.
    “We have worked real hard. We’ve developed a lot in the last year, and we’re just continuing to get better, and that is the key for our group.”

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Friday, 25 November 2016

Shmyr sparks Blades, brings ugly skid to an end

Braylon Shmyr, left, celebrates his winning goal for the Blades.
    Braylon Shmyr sparked and finished things for the Saskatoon Blades.
    On Friday night at the SaskTel Centre, the 19-year-old Calgary product scored 12 seconds into a WHL clash against the visiting Brandon Wheat Kings to give the host side a 1-0 lead. Shmyr also tucked home a gritty winner from the right side of the Brandon goal with 41.9 seconds to play in the third period to break a 2-2 draw and deliver the Blades to a 3-2 victory.
    The win allowed “the Bridge City Bunch” to end an ugly four-game losing skid where they were outscored 24-6.
    “We always talk about having a good start, so that first shift that we had that we scored on, that set the momentum for the game,” said Shmyr, whose team improved to 10-15-1 with the win. “It is always nice getting those game-winning goals.
    “It is just all about battling and finishing right to the end. We had a week of just setting down and having team meetings. We were just figuring out what we could do to win games, and I think it paid off for us.”
    Wearing their classic blue Pac-Man jerseys, the Blades immediately engaged the crowd of 3,929 spectators with Shmyr’s first goal that seemed to come out of nowhere.
Jesse Shynkaruk speeds up the ice for the Blades.
    The hosts then appeared to have total control of the contest after overage centre Jesse Shynkaruk laser beamed his seventh of the season top left corner on Wheat Kings goaltender Logan Thompson. The tally gave the Blades a 2-0 edge at the 7:10 mark of the second.
    The visitors replied with a big push back.
    Just 33 seconds after Shynkaruk’s goal, Wheat Kings left-winger Tyler Coulter wired home his 10th of the season to cut the Blades lead to 2-1.
    Brandon evened the score up at 2-2 with 3:11 to play in the second, when defenceman Schael Higson floated home a point shot.
    When the second came to a close, the Wheat Kings were carrying the momentum holding an overall 21-17 edge in shots.
    The Blades recovered their footing in the third, where Shmyr came through with the winner. Brandon applied pressure in the final seconds but couldn’t put the puck past Blades netminder Logan Flodell.
Logan Christensen (#41) steals the puck for the Blades.
    Flodell made 31 stops to earn the win in goal. Thompson turned away 25 shots to take the loss for the Wheat Kings, who fell to 12-9-3.
    “It feels good just to win - period,” said Blades head coach Dean Brockman. “I think our group was pretty gutsy in the third.
    “It is good for our club. Hopefully, we can get some confidence going.
    “You could see we were scrambling a little bit in the third period. That is just a team that hasn’t won for a while.”
    Brockman was happy to see Shmyr come through with a nice night against his former team. The Blades acquired Shmyr in a trade with the Wheat Kings shortly before last season’s WHL trade deadline.
    “He has probably been our best player over the last 10 or 12 games,” said Brockman. “Just to see him get rewarded against his old team it is a really good for him.”
The Blades salute the SaskTel Centre crowd.
    The Blades return to action on Saturday, when they host the red hot Medicine Hat Tigers at 7 p.m. at the SaskTel Centre.
    After pounding the Raiders 7-1 on Friday night in Prince Albert, the Tigers sit first overall in the WHL at 19-5-1 and have won eight straight games.

Hausinger dealt to Rebels

    The Blades were active on the trade front before Friday’s game rolled around.
    Saskatoon dealt 17-year-old right-winger Cameron Hausinger to the Red Deer Rebels in exchange for a seventh round selection in the 2017 WHL Bantam Draft and a fifth round pick in the 2018 WHL Bantam Draft. 
    In 20 games this season, Hausinger had three assists, 22 penalty minutes and a minus-seven rating in the plus-minus department.

McCarty goes down

    The Blades lost team scoring leader Mason McCarty to injury late in the second period.
    The 19-year-old winger has 14 goals and eight assists in 26 games. His status is uncertain for Saturday’s game against the Tigers.

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Sunday, 20 November 2016

It’s not all bad for Blades

Saskatoon needs to stay in mix for January

Braylon Shmyr zips up ice for the Blades.
    If you’re a fan of the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades, you might be panicking like the sky is fall or groaning that it is “here we go again” time.
    Starting Thursday, “the Bridge City Bunch” began a stretch where they play three games in three nights and fell convincingly each night out. On Thursday night, the Blades fell at home 5-1 to the Moose Jaw Warriors (13-4-4).
    On Friday, Saskatoon hit the road for Brandon and was thrashed 8-1 at the hands of the Wheat Kings (12-7-3). The Blades and Wheat Kings went at it again on Saturday, and Brandon came away with a 6-3 victory.
    Thanks to this current three-game skid, the Blades fell to 9-14-1 and sit ninth overall in the WHL’s Eastern Conference standings. They are two points behind the Lethbridge Hurricanes (9-11-1-2) for eighth overall in the WHL’s Eastern Conference and the conference’s final berth in the WHL playoffs. The Hurricanes also have one game in hand on the Blades.
    Trailing both of those teams in the standings is the Calgary Hitmen (8-9-2). The Hitmen are one point behind the Blades with five games in hand and three points behind the Hurricanes with four games in hand.
    With Saskatoon having not made the playoffs since 2013, fans might worry the Blades are hitting that November wall, which could adversely affect the team’s post-season chances. The grind of the WHL schedule usually kicks in for most teams when the calendar turns to November, and with a club that hasn’t experienced much success in recent years like the Blades, Saskatoon fans likely have that sinking feeling.
    It also has to be said that all hope is not lost. While this might sound strange, the Blades will be in good shape, if they remain in the playoff hunt when January begins.
    From September to the end of December, Saskatoon’s regular season schedule is really road heavy. The Blades play 15 times at home and 24 times on the road.
    When the new year starts, the Blades regular season schedule rounds out with 21 home dates and 12 road contests. That schedule will work in Saskatoon’s advantage.
    If you in a playoff chase, you want to be playing at home as much as possible down the stretch when the pressure heats up. It helps a little more with keeping your team in a somewhat regular and consistent daily routine, and you also have the chance to catch an opponent in a bus lagged moment, which creates a chance for an easier win.
Goaltender Logan Flodell has been solid for the Blades.
    The Blades also have some bright spots to potentially lean on. Despite the recent losses, goaltender Logan Flodell is having a strong campaign. The Regina product has posted an 8-7 record, a 3.05 goals against average, a .913 save percentage and two shutouts.
    He will likely be the workhorse the Blades rely on during the second half.
    Gritty right-winger Mason McCarty has had a good start netting 14 goals and seven assists in 24 games to lead the Blades in scoring. The defensive pairing of overager Bryton Sayers and Czech import Libor Hajek have been a duo you can lean on.
    Sayers has three goals, nine assists and an even rating in the plus-minus department. Hajek, who is a second round NHL Entry Draft selection of the Tampa Bay Lightning, has 10 assists and a minus-five rating in 22 appearances.
    Saskatoon has stayed in the hunt so far despite having a trio of key players out with extended injuries. Star centre Cameron Hebig has been gone the entire season to date with an upper body injury.
    Last season, Hebig had 26 goals and 43 assists in 59 games. His offensive touch would be a huge addition back to the active roster whenever he returns.
    Left-winger Jesse Shynkaruk has missed 13 games with an upper body injury. He was off to a nice start with six goals and three assists in 11 games. The local overage product is set to come off the injury list.
Libor Hajek controls the puck at the point for the Blades.
    As a result of that development, the Blades dealt overage left-winger Ryan Graham to the Swift Current Broncos on Sunday in exchange for a second round selection in the 2017 WHL Bantam Draft and a 4th round selection in the 2018 Bantam Draft.
    The move keeps the Blades active roster at the maximum of three overage players including Shynkaruk, Sayers and left-winger Kolten Olynek.
    Defenceman Jake Kustra has been down for 15 games with an upper body injury, and he was expected to be a solid piece on the back end as a 17-year-old sophomore.
    Had Hebig, Shynkaruk and Kustra not missed significant time, the Blades would likely have had a better record to date.
    Dean Brockman has had to do some juggling as a rookie WHL head coach. Before joining the Blades as an assistant coach in June of 2014, Brockman had a storied stay in the junior A ranks with the Humboldt Broncos, where he developed the reputation of being a players’ coach. He has the ability to make his players see the way.
    The Blades return to action on Tuesday, when they travel to Swift Current to face the Broncos (11-7-2-4). That contest provides another chance to stay afloat. If the Blades can remain in the playoff hunt through a tough first four months, the light is at the end of the tunnel.

Hilltops celebrate another championship campaign

Hilltops RB Logan Fischer shares the Canadian Bowl with some young fans.
    The Saskatoon Hilltops are enjoying the spoils of another Canadian Junior Football League championship.
    The Toppers claimed the Canadian Bowl with a 37-25 victory over the Westshore Rebels on Nov. 12 in Langford, B.C. The win marked the third straight year the Hilltops claimed the Canadian Bowl, and they became the first team to win six CJFL titles over a seven year period. Saskatoon has won a total of 19 CJFL championships.
    For just over the past week, the Hilltops have been enjoying the well wishes from the citizens of Saskatoon. On Saturday, they enjoyed their year-end Len Richardson Memorial Awards Banquet at the Radisson Hotel.
    The event featured lots of praise for outgoing starting star quarterback in the humble Jared Andreychuk. Andreychuk became the first Hilltops quarterback to start and win three straight CJFL championship games posting a perfect career 9-0 post-season record. He also was a member of a Hilltops CJFL championship team in 2012 as the backup quarterback.
    He was named the most valuable player of the Prairie Football Conference this past season, and on Saturday, he claimed the Drs. Landa-Doig Award as the Hilltops most outstanding graduate. During the banquet, the Hilltops players often chanted “MVP” or called out “Goat” for greatest of all-time for Andreychuk because of his accomplishments.
    He took all the praise with a bit of an embarrassed smile.
    Also at the banquet, Hilltops head coach Tom Sargeant gave a good shout out for the efforts of this blog in covering his team. The shout out was big time appreciated.
    On Sunday, the Hilltops made rounds with the Canadian Bowl trophy at the Santa Claus parade held in downtown Saskatoon. During the odd moment, star running back Logan Fischer brought the trophy over to groups of children for them to see and touch.
    The Hilltops were one of three Saskatoon-based teams at the parade with championship hardware. The Saskatoon Valkyries brought their championship trophy for winning the Western Women’s Canadian Football League, and the Saskatchewan Rush brought the Champion’s Cup for winning the National Lacrosse League title.
    Like the Valkyries and Rush, the Hilltops are likely to make a number of rounds to various stops in the city with their CJFL championship trophy.

Back in the Express with Huskies Zary

Captain Lauren Zary (#13) speeds up ice for the Huskies.
    I was back in the pages of the Saskatoon Express this week with a cover story on Lauren Zary, who is the captain of the University of Saskatchewan Huskies women’s hockey team.
    Zary is in her fifth and final year of eligibility and joined the Huskies after playing for Brown University in the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Before joining the post-secondary ranks, Zary was a star with the Saskatoon Stars midget AAA team.
    The story seemed to be well-timed one. On Friday night at the ancient Rutherford Rink, Zary had a goal and three assists as the Huskies downed the University of Calgary Dinos 5-3. The Huskies followed that game up by blanking the Dinos 2-0 on Saturday night at Rutherford.
    With the wins, the Huskies, who are rated ninth in the U Sports top 10 rankings, improved to 9-3 to sit second in the Canada West Conference standings.
    The U of Saskatchewan Huskies men’s hockey team split a pair of road games on the weekend in Calgary. On Friday, they downed the U of Calgary Dinos 5-0. On Saturday, the Dinos claimed a 2-1 decision after a tiebreaking shootout against the Huskies.
    With those results, the Huskies mens’ team, who are rated third in the U Sports top 10 rankings, saw their record move to 8-2-2 to sit second in Canada West.
    The Huskies hockey teams return to action this coming weekend against the U of Manitoba Bisons.
    The Huskies women’s team hosts the Bisons this Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. and 5 p.m. respectively at Rutherford. The Huskies men’s team travels to Winnipeg to face the Bisons this Friday and Saturday.
    The Saskatoon Express cover story on Zary can be found here.

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Thursday, 17 November 2016

Warriors’ Luka knows offence

16-year-old nets three points in 5-1 win over Blades

Luka Burzan, second from right, celebrates scoring for the Warriors.
    Luka Burzan appears to be one of the select few that can make and immediate impact in the WHL as a 16-year-old rookie.
    The Surrey, B.C., product was selected by the Moose Jaw Warriors in the first round and sixth overall in the 2015 WHL Bantam Draft, and he made a name for himself by piling up the points coming up through the minor hockey ranks in southern British Columbia.
    Even with that in mind, most first round WHL Bantam Draft selections usually experience their share of bumps as 16-year-old rookies, and they will often have break out campaigns later in in their careers.
    On Thursday night before 3,302 spectators at the SaskTel Centre in Saskatoon against the host Blades, Burzan showed he is ready to break out now. The skilled forward netted the Warriors first two goals, picked up an assist on his squad’s third marker and helped power Moose Jaw to a 5-1 victory. In 15 appearances so far this season, Burzan has seven goals, six assists and is a plus-four in the plus-minus department.
    He also picked up his points playing right wing on a line that contained a pair of 18-year-old standouts in centre Noah Gregor and Russian import Nikita Popugaev playing left wing. Burzan envisioned himself playing in a top six forward role with the Warriors as a 16-year-old rookie.
Luka Burzan gets set up in the offensive zone.
    “Coming into this season, I thought I would just try to get better this summer and just try to work my hardest,” said Burzan. “Coming into this season, that was my goal was to get in the top six and get this opportunity. I am just trying to take advantage of it.”
    Against the Blades, Burzan showed he has the smarts to take advantage of good opportunities. With 1:21 to play in the first period, Burzan converted a nice pass from Gregor coming across the face of the Saskatoon goal and easily popped the puck into an open cage to give the visitors a 1-0 edge. It was a goal Blades netminder Brock Hamm had no chance at stopping.
    Just 1:40 into the second, Burzan received a nice feed from Popugaev and snapped home a low wrist shot stick side on Hamm to put the Warriors up 2-0. Burzan has found it easy to play alongside Gregor and Popugaev.
    “They are two very great players,” said Burzan. “They move the puck really well.
    “They are very smart. They have good vision. When I am playing with them, it makes it way easier.”
    At the seven-minute mark of the second, Burzan set up Gregor in the slot, and he blew home a shot to put the visitors up 3-0.
Warriors centre Noah Gregor zips wide around a Blades defenceman.
    Blades captain Wyatt Sloboshan stopped the bleeding momentarily just 23 second later sneaking home a goal between the legs of Warriors netminder Zach Sawchenko to cut Moose Jaw’s edge to 3-1.
    Before the second ended, Warriors centre Jayden Halbgewachs scored on the power play to give the visitors a 4-1 edge. Gregor rounded out the game’s scoring with a short-handed breakaway goal in the third.
    Zawchenko made 32 save to pick up the win in goal for the Warriors, who improved to 12-4-4. The star 19-year-old goalie came up huge in the first period turning away 15 shots. The Blades were carrying the play in the contest until Burzan popped home his two goals.
    Hamm, who has struggled all season, turned away 30 shots to take the loss in goal for the Blades, who fell to 9-12-1.
    Blades head coach Dean Brockman said his squad had too many break downs defensively, which allowed the Warriors to roll.
    “It just seems like every time we make a mistake it ends up in our net,” said Brockman.
    Burzan believes his Warriors have the talent to challenge the WHL’s elite teams like their arch rivals the Regina Pats, who are an impressive 15-0-3.
Blades head coach Dean Brockman glances at a scoreboard replay.
    Moose Jaw’s depth became stronger after acquiring 19-year-old left-winger Brayden Burke in a recent trade with the Lethbridge Hurricanes. Burke finished third in league scoring last season with 27 goals and 82 assists.
    The Warriors are also awaiting the return of captain Brett Howden, who is listed as out week to week with a lower body injury. Howden was taken by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round and 27th overall in last June’s NHL Entry Draft. He had nine goals and five assists in 11 appearances with the Warriors this season before getting hurt.
    “I think we are going to have very good team,” said Burzan. “We are going to have good chemistry.
    “We just need to learn how to compete and play hardest up against these teams like Regina, those hard teams. I think we can compete with them.
    “We will just try to get better as a team, and I think we will have a good season.”
    The Warriors travel to Swift Current on Friday to take on the Broncos. The Blades head to Brandon to face the Wheat Kings on Friday and Saturday night.

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Saturday, 12 November 2016

Hilltops keep finding a way, win 19th CJFL championship

Saskatoon claims sixth Canadian Bowl title in seven years

The Hilltops got to raise the Canadian Bowl once again.
  When the Saskatoon Hilltops fall down, it almost feels like they are never out.
    Playing in the Canadian Bowl in Langford, B.C., on Saturday, the Hilltops were not looking like themselves during the first 34 minutes of their Canadian Junior Football League championship clash with the host Westshore Rebels. They turned the ball over four times in the first half but were still able to hold a 16-12 lead at halftime at Westhills Stadium.
    With just under five minutes expired in the third quarter, Rebels quarterback Ashton Mackinnon scored a touchdown on a one-yard quarterback sneak to give his side a 19-16 edge on the Hilltops. The venerable CJFL club wasn’t down for long.
    On the ensuing kickoff, an X-factor came into play. Hilltops rookie running back Joshua Ewanchyna, who is a graduate of Saskatoon’s Holy Cross High School, ran the Rebels kick back 105 yards for a touchdown for the visitors to give them a 23-19 edge. While Ewanchyna scored on a nine-yard run in the first half, his major off the kick return snapped the Hilltops back into form.
    With 66 seconds to play in the third quarter, Hilltops quarterback Jared Andreychuk hit running back Logan Fischer with a seven-yard scoring toss to increase Saskatoon’s edge to 30-19. That drive was kept alive by a too many men penalty against the Rebels on a Hilltops third down play.
    Andreychuk added the dagger with 3:46 to go in the fourth quarter hooking up with Jason Price on a 47-yard scoring toss to put the Toppers up 37-19. Despite a desperate rally attempted by the Rebels, the Hilltops came away with a 37-25 victory.
    The win allowed the Hilltops to claim a third straight Canadian Bowl victory, and they became the first team to win six CJFL titles over a seven year period. The Hilltops also took home their 19th CJFL championship team history. Saskatoon’s first national championship came way back in 1953.
Logan Fischer ran for 202 yards for the Hilltops.
    Since Tom Sargeant became the team’s head coach in 1998, he has guided the Hilltops to 10 victories in the Canadian Bowl. While each of those Saskatoon teams wrote its own individual championship story, each of those clubs has one similar characteristic. Any Hilltops club that has been overseen by a staff run by Sargeant has improved greatly as the season has gone on.
    The Hilltops at the end of the season are always a way different team than at the start of the campaign. At the start of 2016 season, a number of Hilltops veterans were adjusting to new roles and rookies had the opportunity to make bigger contributions than normal due to the graduation of 16 players in their final year of CJFL eligibility after the 2015 season.
    Andreychuk, who became the first Hilltops quarterback to win three straight CJFL titles as the starter, was throwing to a new group of regular receivers. A number of question marks hung over the team.
    In Week 3, the Hilltops dropped a 36-21 decision at Saskatoon Minor Football Field to the Calgary Colts. The Toppers were down 36-0 at one point in that contest, and one had to wonder if the championship run would end. The Hilltops also made a number of mistakes they don’t normally make in that game, and the coaches knew that paying just a little better attention to detail would change things around.
    Saskatoon never lost again winning nine straight to conclude the year with an 11-1 overall record. There were bumps in the road, but the Hilltops found a way to persevere.
    Against the Rebels on Saturday, the Hilltops scored a touchdown on their first offensive series on a 58-yard drive. The drive was capped by Andreychuk hitting Fischer on a nine-yard scoring toss to give the visitors a 7-0 lead.
    After that score, the adversity hit. With under a minute to play, an Andreychuk screen pass was intercepted by Rebels defensive lineman Byron Mackinnon, who returned the ball 66 yards for a touchdown to tie things up 7-7.
    Ewanchyna’s rushing touchdown early in the second quarter that gave the Hilltops a 14-7 edge didn’t restore order. Rebels kicker Kyle Clarke hit a 33-yard field goal to cut Saskatoon’s edge to 14-10. The two clubs traded conceded safety touches before halftime.
    In the first half, the Hilltops turned over the ball twice on interceptions, once via a fumble and once on downs due to a bad snap on a punt. Still, the Hilltops were up 16-12.
Joshua Ewanchyna returned a kick 105 yards for a TD.
    The Hilltops began to assert themselves in the second half, which included a big interception by defensive back Jared Giddings early in the fourth quarter.
    Leading 37-19, the Hilltops did get a little scare near the end of the fourth quarter. Rebels backup quarterback Devouon Hallums scored on a one-yard sneak to cut Saskatoon’s edge to 37-25.
    A short time later, Rebels receiver Brandon Ihanza dropped a ball in the end zone, which would have further cut Saskatoon’s edge. The Rebels, who fell to 10-2-1 overall, turned the ball over on downs to really get the Hilltops victory celebration started.
    Fischer proved key in helping the Hilltops grind down the game. He piled up 202 yards rushing on 28 carries and caught four passes for 43 yards and two majors in being named the offensive player of the game at the Canadian Bowl for a second straight year. Hilltops linebacker Cody Peters was the defensive player of the game recording nine solo tackles.
    Andreychuk completed 10-of-15 passes for 220 yards, three touchdowns and two inceptions.
    Ashton Mackinnon connected on 12-of-24 passes for 181 yards and one interception. Rebels star running back Jamel Lyles piled up 141 yards rushing on 16 carries.
    The Hilltops were able to enjoy a well-deserved victory celebration in the suburb of Victoria. They never fold and their accomplishments keep growing. Their story keeps getting more and more amazing.

Andreychuk accomplishes rare feat

Jared Andreychuk graduated as a four-time CJFL champ.
    Andreychuk joined select company when it came to winning three straight CJFL title games as a starting quarterback.
    It is believed only two other quarterbacks accomplished that same feat. Darryl Leason won three straight CJFL championships as the starting quarterback of the Regina Rams from 1993 to 1995. 
    Tony Rankel claimed three straight CJFL championships as the starting signal caller for the Edmonton Huskies from 1962-64.
    The Hilltops also won three straight titles from 2001-03 and 2010-12, but those runs had a mix of different starters.
    Andreychuk was a backup quarterback on the Hilltops 2012 CJFL title team, and he wraps up his junior career with a perfect 9-0 record as a starter in the CJFL post-season.
    Leason was 15-1 as a post-season starter. 
    Rankel played four years with the Huskies, and it is unknown if he experienced a post-season setback in his career.

“Sarge” passes McCrystal for total titles

Tom Sargeant, centre, gives instruction to Jared Andreychuk.
    Saturday’s Canadian Bowl victory was Sargeant’s 10th as the head coach of the Hilltops, and he also hit another milestone with the victory.
    The legendary veteran experienced his 13th CJFL championship win with the Hilltops, which moves him past former Regina Rams head coach Frank McCrystal for total CJFL championship victories.
    Besides being part of 10 CJFL championship teams as the Hilltops head coach, Sargeant was part of one CJFL championship winner as a Hilltops player and two as a Hilltops assistant coach.
    McCrystal experienced 12 CJFL championship wins with the Rams including three as a player, two as an assistant coach and seven as a head coach.

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Friday, 11 November 2016

Huskies start running with next generation

Summer Masikewich is one of the Huskies bright young players.
    Lisa Thomaidis can already see the light at the end of the tunnel for her young team.
    The veteran head coach of the University of Saskatchewan Huskies women’s basketball team knows her squad this season is much different than the one that claimed a U Sports national title in March. Last season, the Huskies hit the court with a veteran roster that included four key players in their fifth and final years of eligibility in Dalyce Emmerson, Laura Dally, Kelsey Trulsrud and Taya Keujer.
    This season, the Huskies take the court with a roster that contains six players in their first years of eligibility. On Friday at the Physical Activity Complex, they dropped their regular season home opener 66-63 to the University of Winnipeg Wesmen, who have three players in their fifth year of eligibility, two players in their fourth year of eligibility and no rookies.
    The Huskies were scrappy, and you got a glimpse of their potential, but the Wesmen’s experience showed through.
    In defeat, Thomaidis found a number positives to build on against a foe that likes to press on defence and pointed out her side isn’t too far off from being really good again.
Libby Epoch is turning heads as a rookie.
    “I didn’t think we did a terrible job handling their pressure,” said Thomaidis. “I thought we did a good job with that.
    “It was just a matter finishing. We had a number of open looks that we couldn’t knock down. We missed a number of free throws.
    “We had our opportunities. The game was right there in hand.”
    If the Huskies had shot just a little better of a percentage from the free-throw line, they would won Friday’s encounter with the Wesmen. U of S went 20-of-32 from the charity stripe, and that small detail played a big factor in the end result.
    During the setback, the Huskies, who fell to 1-2, still received strong outings from a number of players. Third-year guard Sascha Lichtenwald led the Dogs with 17 points and came up with three steals.
    Rookies Summer Masikewich and Libby Epoch, who both played for Canada’s under-18 women’s basketball team, showed they are ready for the university level chipping in 14 and 12 points respectively. They looked like they were just scratching the surface of their potential.
    Second-year point guard Sabine Dukate was playing her first game after returning from injury, and she did show some rust. Dukate, who is from Latvia, was a standout last season, and you can expect it won’t take her long to return to top form.
    Fourth-year guard Antoinette Miller led the way for the Wesmen, who improved to 3-0, with 26 points and seven rebounds.
Sascha Lichtenwald topped the Huskies with 17 points on Friday.
    “She (Miller) was great tonight,” said Thomaidis. “She made a lot happen for them.
    “She scored a lot at the rim. She got high percentage shots. We need to do a better job of taking care of her.”
    Overall, Thomaidis knew her team would experience some bumps.
    “It was kind of what I expected,” she said. “Having said that, the game was right there for the taking. We weren’t able to finish it off.
    “Hopefully, we have a better effort tomorrow and better efficiency in terms of finishing around the hoop.”
    The Huskies and Wesmen go at it again at 6:15 p.m. at the Physical Activity Complex.

Forbes back in the fold

Matt Forbes nails a three for the Huskies.
    Welcome back Matt Forbes.
    The U of Saskatchewan Huskies men’s basketball team missed you.
    In Friday’s 76-68 regular season win over the U of Winnipeg Wesmen at the PAC, Forbes showed how important an experienced big man can be. He didn’t led the way statistically but had sound numbers scoring 13 points and pulling down 10 rebounds. With Forbes on the court, the Huskies seemed to be a little more settled in their overall team game improving to 2-1.
    Originally, Forbes was supposed to play out his fifth year of eligibility last season, but he was sidelined for the whole campaign after suffering a foot injury in the Huskies first pre-season game. Without Forbes, the Huskies posted an 8-12 regular season record and missed the playoffs.
    In 2014-15 with Forbes in the lineup, the Huskies finished with a 15-5 regular season record, made it to the Canada West championship game falling to U of Victoria Vikes 70-67 and made an appearance at nationals.
    While Forbes often faces forwards who are bigger than his 6-foot-6 and 235-pound frame, he wins the physical battle inside on a regular basis. Unlike most big men, Forbes can also stretch the defence due to his ability to hit the three-point shot. He nailed two baskets from beyond the arch on Friday.
    Forbes’s presence on the floor helps take pressure off the rest of his teammates and allows them to take advantage of more favourable one-on-one match ups.
Matt Forbes (#13) organizes a post-game huddle for the Huskies.
    Against the Wesmen, sophomore guard Chan De Ciman led the way with 21 points. Fourth-year forward Shane Osayande netted 18 points and pulled down 12 rebounds, while point guard Alex Unruh chipped in 14 points.
    Rookie guard Narcisse Ambanza led the Wesmen with 23 points as they dropped to 2-1.
The Huskies and Wesmen face each other again at 8 p.m. at the PAC.
    With Forbes back in the fold, the Huskies chances of winning on any single night got a whole lot better.

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Thursday, 10 November 2016

Hilltops leader on verge of last hurrah

Andreychuk would join select company with Canadian Bowl win

Jared Andreychuk fires a pass downfield for the Hilltops.
    With another Canadian Junior Football League championship win, Jared Andreychuk will join some select company.
    The fifth-year quarterback for the Saskatoon Hilltops has built a reputation of being the ultimate gamer and leader during his CJFL career. He was a rookie back-up, when the Hilltops took the 2012 Canadian Bowl in a 23-21 thriller against the host Langley Rams.
    The graduate from Saskatoon’s Centennial High School led the Hilltops to CJFL championship in each of the past two years as the starting signal caller.
    The Hilltops (10-1 overall) are going for a third straight Canadian Bowl victory on Saturday in Langford, B.C., which is a suburb of Victoria, facing the host Westshore Rebels (10-1-1 overall).
    If Andreychuk can quarterback the Hilltops to a win in that contest, he will become one of the few signal callers to guide his team to three straight CJFL championships as a starter. It is believed only two other quarterbacks have won three straight CJFL championships as the starting signal caller including Darryl Leason, who accomplished the three-peat with the Regina Rams from 1993 to 1995, and Tony Rankel, who performed that feat with the Edmonton Huskies from 1962 to 1964.
Jared Andreychuk stands at attention during the national anthem.
    “That would be unreal,” said Andreychuk, who stands 6-feet and weighs 175 pounds. “That is kind of an expectation coming into every year with the Hilltops, especially with the good teams we’ve had in the last few years.
    “We’re at another one. Now that we’ve got here, there is nothing else to do but win the ball game. That is what we are going to try to do.”
    Back in 2013, Andreychuk almost got the Hilltop into the Canadian Bowl as a second-year player. During that year’s Prairie Football Conference final at Griffiths Stadium, the Hilltops lost then starter Matt Karpinka in the first half to injury in a battle against their provincial rivals the Regina Thunder.
    The Hilltops were trailing the Thunder, when Andreychuk entered the game. By the end of the third quarter, Regina’s lead ballooned to 21-2.
    Andreychuk and the Hilltops offence made a pile of desperation plays in the fourth quarter scoring a pair of touchdowns, but the Thunder held on for a 21-16 win. Regina would take that year’s Canadian Bowl.
    The Hilltops haven’t lost a post-season contest since falling to the Thunder in 2013 winning eight straight contests. Andreychuk started all eight of those wins. His best days have come in the Canadian Bowl.
Jared Andreychuk escapes a Calgary Colts pass rusher.
    In 2014 in Langley, B.C., Andreychuk completed 17-of-27 passes for 343 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. The Hilltops bombed the host Rams 39-14.
    Last year at Saskatoon Minor Football Field, Andreychuk connected on 18-of-23 passes for 369 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. The Hilltops downed a game Kelowna, B.C., based Okanagan Sun team 38-24.
    This year, Andreychuk is enjoying what to this point has been his finest season with the Hilltops. He completed 124-of-200 passes in his team’s nine-game regular season for 2,008 yards, 23 touchdown passes and six interceptions.
    He put up those numbers after losing all but one of his group of regular season receivers due to graduation. Tyson Sawatzky was the only regular from last season’s pass catching group that was back this year.
    All-Canadian all-star Sam Mike, Jason Price, Ryan Turple and Sawatzky formed this season’s regular receiving group. Star running back Logan Fischer was also a dangerous pass catcher coming out of the backfield.
    “The guys stepped into spots for sure,” said Andreychuk. “At the start of the season regardless of how much you throw with those guys in the off-season, it is tough to build some in game chemistry. That took a couple of games to get into.
Jared Andreychuk calls signals from under centre for the Hilltops.
    “After we did, we really clicked. It has been a very successful passing season for us.”
    In this year’s playoffs, Andreychuk had to quarterback the Hilltops to victory in a couple of tight contests to reach the Canadian Bowl. They slipped past the Thunder 25-24 in the PFC semifinal and downed the Calgary Colts 43-31 in the PFC final.
    “Every year we kind of go over some bumps and stuff like that,” said Andreychuk. “I think that is good. You go through some resilience and you really kind of find your heart and find your identity.”
    If the Hilltops win on Saturday, Andreychuk will graduate the junior ranks with the distinction of never having lost a post-season start.
    Against the Rebels, the Hilltops defence will face a big challenge in running back Jamel Lyles, who was a standout with the University of Manitoba Bisons last season. Lyles topped the British Columbia Football Conference regular season in rushing piling up 1,604 yards on 187 carries, and he scored 15 touchdowns along the ground in 10 games.
Jared Andreychuk hopes to celebrate one more Canadian Bowl win.
    The Rebels tailback is arguably the fastest ball carrier in the CJFL and is extremely dangerous in the open field.
  When the final seconds of Saturday’s game tick away, Andreychuk will face the next phase of his life. He is keeping his options open to a possible chance to play in the Canadian university ranks.
    “I’m still a student,” said Andreychuk. “I have to finish up a degree. I’ve got that to worry about.
    “I am just going to enjoy my life, stay in shape and who knows what is left for me in my football career.”
    NOTES – Besides Mike, three other Hilltops have been named all-Canadians this week. Veteran offensive guard Drayke Unger made it on the offensive side of the ball, while defensive end Blake Hermann and middle linebacker Cameron Schnitzler made it on defence.

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Sunday, 6 November 2016

Hilltops player suspensions an “it is what it is” situation

    The Saskatoon Hilltops had an eventful couple of days last week that had nothing to do with football.
    On Wednesday, a story about an off-field incident at the team’s clubhouse hit all the mainstream media outlets in Saskatoon. The incident happened on Oct. 14 a couple of days before the Hilltops played their final regular season contest on the road against the Rifles in Winnipeg.
    The incident involved an 18-year-old player telling a tasteless joke. Two other players decided to address the situation themselves and taped the 18-year-old player to a pole, where he subsequently lost consciousness for a short time.
    Paramedics took the player to hospital, and he was released later that night. The police were called, which resulted in an assault investigation getting launched. Officers concluded there was no intent to cause injury and the file was closed at the victim’s request.
    When the paramedics were called, the Hilltops coaches and board of directors were informed of what happened. The two players responsible for the taping were suspended indefinitely by the team at that time.
    Long-time Hilltops head coach Tom Sargeant and team executive board member and media coordinator Chris Hengen-Braun handled the bulk of the media interviews. The Hilltops released a statement about the incident on Thursday that said the actions taken by the players who did the taping were no way acceptable and that each player, coach and board member signs a code of conduct.
    This story broke as the Hilltops were at the start of their preparation period to play in the Canadian Junior Football League championship game – the Canadian Bowl. The Hilltops travel to Langford, B.C., which is a suburb of Victoria, to face the Westshore Rebels for the CJFL title on Nov. 12.
    When news of this incident broke, you knew there would be people out in the general public that will judge the team. There is no way to avoid that.
    On the surface, the Hilltops did a decent job in handling the situation. The taping incident is a situation that crosses the line and players have to be suspended. The team acted quickly to hand down punishment.
    On that front, the Hilltops handled what they could control. If the situation would have spread more on the legal front, they would have had to ride the twists and turns of those waves.
    Having dealt with the team on a very frequent basis since I settled in Saskatoon in the summer of 2014, that incident in definitely not normal, and it is a total exception of what happens around the team.
    Sargeant and his staff constantly remind the players how they should be conducting themselves in a proper manner. The Hilltops players act as perfect gentlemen when they are out in public and are businesslike when they approach the craft of playing football. The players also participate in a number of community type charity events throughout the year.
    When you have a roster of 83 players like the Hilltops have carried this season, you will have the odd slip. You don’t want the slip to happen, but it does happen. When you deal with that large of a group of people, eventually the numbers catch up to you where someone makes a real poor decision no matter what steps a coach takes.
    I know there are people out there that would have liked to have seen names disclosed.
    When you compare what the Hilltops did to what happens in the workplace with companies, the Hilltops gave way more disclosure than any company would have and that includes mainstream media companies.
    In my life experiences, I am aware of companies hiding situations that are comparable or way worse to what happened in the Hilltops clubhouse. On top of that, I am aware of situations in the workplace environment in companies where the offender in a serious situation has kept his job and life moved on like nothing happened.
    The Hilltops have to be given credit for handling the clubhouse situation like they did.
    I also find it strange that this story broke almost three weeks after the clubhouse incident happened. Over the last two years, the Hilltops have had a lot of positive press. I know from my time working in mainstream outlets a tendency will arise to find something or anything negative to report about a team that has had a lot of positive press in an effort to look balanced.
    It is the outlets’ way of saying that team isn’t so great. That team had problems.
    The Hilltops have a high profile in Saskatoon, and the story of the players’ suspensions is a legitimate story.
    It should also be noted that the Hilltops are not the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders, when it comes to media coverage. Every aspect of the Roughriders gets dissected. The Hilltops get decent coverage, but due to media industry cuts in Canada, they are nowhere near covered like they were 10 years ago or even 15 years ago.
    Due to playing in front of crowds of about 1,000, the Hilltops won’t be covered like the Roughriders, who play in front of regular crowds of over 30,000 and are on national television every week.
    The clubhouse incident story would have been more of a story about three weeks after the fact if it was still in the legal realm. Without the legal realm aspect, it feels more like someone stretched to make something stick.
    I know there are editors and managers out there that won’t like me saying that, but it is what it is.
    The Hilltops said in their statement they have made this incident a learning experience for everyone that wears the blue and gold jersey. Besides being a learning experience for the Hilltops, I would add all teams in Saskatoon that have a high profile like the Saskatchewan Rush, Saskatoon Blades, University of Saskatchewan Huskies and Saskatoon Valkyries should also note how this situation played out as a teaching item for their programs.
    If you are thinking about taking an action that opens you up to the potential of being grilled in the mainstream media, it would be wise to not follow through with that action.

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Saturday, 5 November 2016

Rams fall short of final Mosaic miracle

Rams QB Noah Picton sets up in the pocket.
    REGINA - For a moment, you thought the Regina Rams would pull off one final miracle at Taylor Field/Mosaic Stadium.
    During their history as members of first the Canadian Junior Football League and then U Sports representing the University of Regina, the Rams in their glory days pulled out games that seemed lost guided by legendary head coaches Gord Currie and Frank McCrystal. Playing a Canada West semifinal game at their storied home park on Saturday against the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds, it appeared the Rams first place season was going to die on a whimper.
    With 12:31 to play in the fourth quarter, Thunderbirds quarterback Michael O’Connor hit receiver David Mann with an 11-yard touchdown toss to put the visitors up 39-13. The hosts trailed because they hadn’t played well. The Thunderbirds, to their credit, played good, but they weren’t great or spectacular.
    Despite the fact a crowd of 4,500 has been pretty raucous, the Rams appeared to be down and out.
    While there wasn’t much time remaining on the clock, the Rams roared back scoring three touchdowns, while the Thunderbirds replied with a rouge punt single from Greg Hutchins.
William McGee's punt is blocked by A.J. Blackwell (#35).
    The last U of R major came when star quarterback Noah Picton hit receiver Ryan Schienbein with an 11-yard scoring strike with nine seconds to play cutting the UBC lead to 40-34. Those that followed the Rams history know they once pulled out a 35-31 regular season victory at home in 2000 against the University of Alberta Golden Bears by scoring the winning points on an onside kick.
    That day, future CFL star Jason Clermont batted a ball out of the air into the arms of teammate Chris Warnecke, who ran the rest of the way for the deciding score. You wondered if something crazy like that would happen again to push the Rams into the Canada West championship game.
    However, Thunderbirds receiver Trey Kellogg hauled in the onside kick to ensure no miracle would happen on this day. The Thunderbirds held on for the 40-34 victory. They will travel to Calgary this coming Saturday to face the University of Calgary Dinos for the Canada West championship trophy – the Hardy Cup.
    With that loss, one of the great single season turnaround stories in recent U Sports history came to an end. After going 0-8 in 2015, the Rams topped the Canada West standings in 2016 with a six-win improvement going 6-2.
Atlee Simon darts through a hole to score a TD for the Rams.
    They were rated fourth in the U Sports top 10 rankings going into their clash with the Thunderbirds. It was an unthinkable development for anyone outside of the team.
    Under the one-year watch of former head coach Mike Gibson in 2015, the Rams fell into disarray. After the winless campaign in 2015, Gibson left the club for the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos to become their offensive line coach and run game coordinator.
    From there, Steve Bryce entered the picture as the Rams new head coach. He played on their offensive line from 1987 to 1991 in the team’s CJFL days and was part of a national championship winner in his rookie season. Under Bryce, the Rams started to play up to their past image from their glory days.
    Picton completed 224-of-323 passes for 3,186 yards, 25 touchdown passes and nine interceptions in the regular season. He set a new U Sports record for passing yards in a season completing an impressive 69.3 per cent of his throws. The Rams were always known as a pass-happy team, but they took that characteristic to a new exciting level this season.
The Rams defence stops Thunderbirds RB Ben Cummings.
    Against UBC, the Rams ran into one of U Sports best ever head coaches in Blake Nill, and his staff developed a game plan to neutralize their high-powered foes. The best way to keep Picton from hurting you was to make him stay on the Rams sidelines.
    Through a combination of running and a series of short passes, the Thunderbirds, who were 3-5 in the regular season, held the ball for 35 minutes and 21 seconds, which limited the Rams to 24 minutes and 39 seconds of possession time.
    The Thunderbirds also ran 22 more plays than their foes did and piled up an unheard of 42 first downs on 179 yards rushing and 397 yards passing. O’Connor accounted for all of UBC’s yards through the air connecting on 29-of-40 passes, two touchdown strikes and one interception.
Michael O'Connor piled up 397 yards passing for UBC.
    The Rams defence couldn’t get the stops their side needed.
    Adding to the frustrations for the home side, Thunderbirds defensive back A.J. Blackwell blocked a punt in the second quarter that was returned 27 yards by teammate Colton Zayshley for a major score. That play increased a 6-3 Thunderbirds edge to 13-3.
    With their limited time with the ball, the Rams still piled up solid offensive numbers. Picton completed 25-of-35 passes for 364 yards, one touchdown and zero interceptions. U of R also put up 106 yards rushing. Most of those yards came from running back Atlee Simon, who ran the ball 16 times for 78 yards and scored three touchdowns.
    Fifth-year Rams slotback Riley Wilson, who was playing his final university game, caught nine passes for 184 yards in a spectacular final bow.
    Still, the Rams had to ponder what might have been.
    With that in mind, the Rams will return the core of their team next season. They only loose Wilson and seven other players to graduation.
The Rams exit the Taylor Field/Mosaic Stadium tunnel for the last time.
    U of R is miles ahead of last year.
    Under Bryce’s guidance, another golden age for Rams football might be around the corner.

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