Thursday, 19 October 2017

PFC final should provide another epic clash between Hilltops and Thunder

FB Colin Stumborg and the Hilltops will battle the Thunder.
    It is a definite understatement to say interest for this year’s Prairie Football Conference final will peak to a high point in the province of Saskatchewan.
    On Sunday at 3 p.m. at Saskatoon Minor Football Field, the Saskatoon Hilltops (8-1), who have won the last three straight Canadian Junior Football League championships, will host the Regina Thunder (6-3). The winner will be pegged as a huge favourite to win a CJFL semifinal match the following week and the CJFL title game – the Canadian Bowl – on November 11.
    The Hilltops and Thunder met in a PFC semifinal match last year, and Saskatoon pulled out a slim 25-24 victory. The last PFC final encounter by the two sides was back in 2013, where the Thunder posted a 21-16 victory at Griffiths Stadium on the campus of the University of Saskatchewan. Regina proceeded to march on and win the Canadian Bowl.
    Over the past three years, the Hilltops took on the Calgary Colts in the PFC final in each of those campaigns and came out victorious in each of those outings.
    The face of the conference final changes when Saskatoon faces Regina due to the historic football rivalry the two centres have had over the years, which includes the Regina Rams tenure in the CJFL from 1954 to 1998 before they moved to the Canadian university ranks. The Thunder are expected to arrive with a large following of fans from Regina.
    “Having the provincial rival come in and play us for PFC final, you can’t really ask for much more,” said Hilltops fourth-year PFC all-star safety James Vause. “Even the games during the regular season are hyped up enough, and this one is going to be pretty hyped up as well.
    “We’re expecting a good crowd, and we’re really excited.”
    This year’s PFC final between the Hilltops and Thunder will contain numerous storylines. The two teams have combine to win the last seven CJFL championships.
    Saskatoon claimed three straight CJFL titles from 2010-12. The Hilltops were attempting to become the first team in the history of the CJFL, which dates back to 1908, to win four straight league championships in 2013, when the Thunder broke up that run.
    This year, the Hilltops are again trying to win four straight CJFL titles, and they will have to try and beat the Thunder again in the PFC final to continue that quest.
    Both sides are coming off tight PFC semifinal victories last Sunday. The Hilltops downed the Winnipeg Rifles 28-21 at SMF Field, and the Thunder traveled to Edmonton and upset the host Huskies 24-21.
Safety James Vause gets set in the Hilltops secondary.
    Both teams had a number of players earn PFC all-star honours this week. On offence, the Hilltops PFC all-stars included offensive linemen Kirk Simonsen, Mason Ochs and Taylor Elderkin along with fifth-year star running back Logan Fischer. On defence, the Toppers PFC all-stars were defensive linemen Tom Schnitzler and Riley Pickett, linebackers Cameron Schnitzler and Cody Peters and defensive backs Vause and Colton Holmes.
    The Thunder’s PFC all-stars on offence included offensive lineman Logan Ferland, running back Victor St. Pierre-Laviolette and receiver Levi Paul. Regina’s lone PFC all-star on defence was defensive back Cordell Kadash.
    The two clubs have talented starting quarterbacks who can sling the ball downfield in Jordan Walls from the Hilltops and Sawyer Buettner of the Thunder.
    Hilltops head coach Tom Sargeant is expecting the upcoming clash between the two sides to be a good one.
    “Last year, the semifinal was a big game, and we were fortunate to take that one,” said Sargeant. “You throw all the stats out the window.
    “They are so well coached they understand it so well that it is going to be dogfight. It is going to be high competition. It is the team that protects the ball better and makes the least amount of mistakes is usually the team that is going to be the most successful.
    “We’re working hard, and the coaches are coaching hard. We just want to put our players in good spots and let them make plays.”
    Sargeant added the fact the Hilltops and Thunder will go at it in a conference final says a lot of good things about the work the coaches in minor and high school football did in Saskatchewan. Nearly all of the players on the rosters of both teams are from Saskatchewan.
    “At the end of the day, it is a Saskatchewan final, so that makes your heart feel good,” said Sargeant. “We’re blessed to have them (the Thunder) in our league, because they make us better. Hopefully, we make them better as well.”
    The two sides split their regular season head-to-head encounters. Back on Aug. 12 in Regina, the Hilltops came away with a 37-20 victory. On Sept. 9 in Saskatoon, the Thunder prevailed 29-26. Before the Thunder victory in September, the Hilltops had claimed six straight encounters between the two sides.
RB Victor St. Pierre-Laviolette (#31) is a playmaker for the Thunder.
    The Hilltops and Thunder have played their share of barnburners, and Vause believes that the difference in the upcoming game will be which side makes two more plays than the other.
    “We have to be dialed in and focused every play,” said Vause. “They are a big play making team.
    “They were down against Edmonton, but they found a way to win and credit to them to that. It was through a few big plays that they won. We have to be really focused every play and make sure they don’t get any deep passes or any deep plays or big runs as well.”
    When the dust settles at SMF Field on Sunday, the two teams will likely add another all-time classic game to one of the CJFL’s best historic rivalries.

Pats’ Brown deserves some respect, other notes

Tyler Brown has been money playing goal for the Pats.
    Some days you have to wonder if Regina Pats goaltender Tyler Brown will ever get the respect he deserves.
    It seems you can go into any WHL rink including the one in Regina and you will find fans, media members, scouts from all levels and executives from various teams that all conclude the Pats would be better off if they had someone different playing goal besides the 20-year-old Winnipeg product. You hear these opinions on Brown shared right in the open.
    There always seems to be talk that the Pats need to upgrade their goaltender if they want to contend for a WHL title or win the Memorial Cup this coming May as the host squad.
    The opinions seem puzzling. So far in his WHL career during the regular season, Brown has posted a 66-36-14 record, a 2.92 goals against average, a .908 save percentage and seven shutouts. In the playoffs, Brown has made all of his 35 career appearances over the past two post-seasons posting a 21-14 record, a 2.61 goals against average, a .915 save percentage and two shutouts.
    Brown, who stands 6-foot-1 and weighs 178 pounds, was the goalie of record, when the Pats fell 2-1 in a series deciding Game 7 of the second round of the 2016 playoffs to the Memorial Cup host Red Deer Rebels. The Pats came super close to making a surprise appearance in the WHL Eastern Conference Championship series due to Brown’s stellar efforts.
    Last season, Brown was the starting goalie who backed the Pats to their best regular season record ever at 52-12-7-1 and advanced to the WHL Championship series for the first time since 1984. The Pats dropped an overtime heartbreaker 4-3 in Game 6 of that championship series to an experienced Seattle Thunderbirds side, who were making their second straight appearance in the league title series.
Pats goalie Tyler Brown gets set to pass the puck.
    It seemed the consensus among everyone was that Brown was an extra weight that a talented Pats team carried to those lofty heights. With the turnover the Pats had coming into this season, it was viewed that Brown would be exposed.
    On Wednesday at the Brandt Centre in Regina, Brown was in goal making 26 saves and named the game’s first star helping the Pats down the visiting Brandon Wheat King 2-1. Brandon’s strong record to start the season dropped to 7-3-1, while the Pats improved to 6-4-1.
    With the departures of numerous star players from the Pats, Brown has appeared in nine games posting a 5-2-1 record, a 2.63 goals against average and a .906 save percentage. That sounds like the work of an experienced star goalie doing his best to allow the reloading team in front of him to get their feet on the ground before they get in position to run.
    If the guys mess up in front of him, Brown will be there to make the save.
    I would say Brown has been exposed as arguably one of the top three goaltenders in the WHL. Pats head coach and general manager John Paddock should be credited with keeping Brown as his team’s starting goalie in such an important season for the franchise.
    It should be noted as well that Brown was in the centre of what was the most critical play of the Pats playoff run last season. During the second round, the Pats trailed the Swift Current Broncos 3-2 in a best-of-seven series and were down 3-1 in the second period of Game 6 held in Swift Current.
    At that point, Broncos captain Glenn Gawdin had a breakaway, and if he scores, the Pats were likely dead in the water. Brown made that key stop and allowed the Pats to gain traction to pull out a 5-3 victory in that game and set the stage for a 5-1 triumph in Game 7 in Regina.
Netminder Tyler Brown makes a glove stop for the Pats.
    The best part about Brown is that he has been questioned about being heckled by fans in opposing buildings and about being the weak link on the Pats roster. He is always the coolest cat in whatever building he is in, and the opinions of others fall off his back like water. That seems like the even mind you want in goal.
    It may take Brown backstopping the Pats to a WHL title and a Memorial Cup title this season for him to get the respect he deserves like former Saskatchewan Roughriders franchise quarterback Darian Durant did with a home Grey Cup win in 2013. If Brown got both WHL and Memorial Cup title wins in the same campaign, that would be a bigger accomplishment than what Durant did.
    The Pats have an experience star goalie, who has come through in the clutch in Brown. The world’s oldest major junior franchise would be playing with fire if they let Brown go.
  • Recent attendance for sports teams in Saskatoon have to feel a little scary. The WHL’s Blades drew 2,578 spectators to their 6-3 home loss to the Vancouver Giants on Wednesday. The U of Saskatchewan Huskies football team drew 3,310 spectators to their 29-25 home loss last Saturday to the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds. The powerhouse U of Saskatchewan Huskies men’s hockey team drew 289 and 358 last Friday and Saturday respectively in 4-3 double overtime and 5-2 home wins over the U of Lethbridge Pronghorns. The Saskatoon Hilltops had a sparse crowd in their 28-21 home Prairie Football Conference semifinal win on Sunday over the Winnipeg Rifles. All those teams have regularly drawn bigger crowds in the past. They all work hard to stay connected to the community, so here is hoping the bigger crowds return.
  • Offensive defenceman Jesse Forsberg is doing for the Huskies men’s hockey team what Connor Hobbs used to do for the WHL’s Pats before moving on to the professional ranks this season. Forsberg is hitting a level few other blue-liners get to in being sound defensively in his own zone and averaging near a point a game offensively. The fourth year agriculture and bioresources deserves a second look from the professional ranks in North American and that includes the NHL.
  • After four years of not making the WHL playoffs, it would be nice to see the Saskatoon Blades return to the post-season dance. It has been hard to see the team stumble out of the gates at 3-6 and be outscored 44-29. Blades head coach Dean Brockman is one of the most first rate persons you will find anywhere, and he has a winning reputation from the lengthy time he spent behind the bench of the Humboldt Broncos in the junior  A ranks of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. Brockman has a bright mind for the game, so hopefully he can find the way to get the Blades to turn the corner.
  • The Blades signed 17-year-old defenceman Randen Schmidt to a WHL contract on Thursday. Schmidt attended Blades training camp as a free-agent invite. The Regina product is playing midget AAA with his hometown Pat Canadians and has five assists in seven regular season games in the current campaign.
  • Veteran Vancouver Province sportswriter Steve Ewen wrote a brilliant piece about the WHL’s Vancouver Giants making a visit to the memorial of the Swift Current Broncos bus crash. It is a definitely must to check out, and it can be found right here.

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