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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