|Ben Abrook (#32) jets home on a 22-yard touchdown run for the Hilltops.|
The third-year Saskatoon Hilltops running back left a host of would be Thunder tacklers laid out all over the turf at Mosaic Stadium on Saturday making the first start of his Canadian Junior Football League career.
When the dust settled, Abrook ran the ball 27 times for 171 yards and scored three touchdowns as the four time defending CJFL champion Hilltops rumbled over the Thunder 41-7 in the regular season opener for both sides played before 2,043 spectators.
Abrook’s biggest run came with 32 seconds remaining in the first half. With the Hilltops holding a 13-7 lead and gambling on a third-and-one situation at the Thunder 22 yard line, Abrook powered the ball on a run off the left off tackle and darted home for his second touchdown of the game to put the Toppers up 20-7.
|Hilltops RB Ben Abrook powers his way through all obstacles.|
“It was awesome to get our (offence) all the way down the field and get a touchdown,” said Abrook. “It felt awesome to the team. It gave us confidence.”
Abrook was looking forward to running behind the Hilltops starting offensive line made up of right tackle Kirk Simonsen, right guard Taylon Elderkin, centre Patrick Arno, left guard Ryder Klisowsky and left tackle Mason Ochs.
“The O-line couldn’t have played better,” said Abrook. “I owe it all to them honestly.
“It is just a veteran O-line group. They do it.”
|The Hilltops celebrate a third touchdown from Ben Abrook (#32).|
Still with the Hilltops having lost Adam Marchart to the University of Saskatchewan Huskies football team in the U Sports ranks and Joshua Ewanchyna sitting out Saturday’s game with a minor ailment, Abrook’s impact was a welcome sight to Hilltops head coach Tom Sargeant.
“Ben Abrook is a third year, and this is his time,” said Sargeant. “He was ready to go.
“What we thought we knew, now we know. He is a primetime player, played his butt off today and everyone rallied around him. We all know that Josh (Ewanchyna) is a key player to what we are going to be doing this year.
|Receiver Connor Graham comes down with a circus catch for the Hilltops.|
Abrook scored his first touchdown on a six-yard run that capped the Hilltops first offensive series of the game early in the first quarter, which happened to be the first offensive possession of the contest.
The Thunder tied things up at 7-7 later on in the opening 15-minutes, when quarterback Brock Sich hooked up with receiver Tanner Zaharia on a deep 41-yard touchdown pass.
Saskatoon exited the first quarter holding a 10-7 lead after David Solie booted home a field goal from 42 yards out.
Near the midway point of the second quarter, Solie hit a
36-yard field goal to give the Hilltops a 13-7 lead.
|Hilltops DB Logan Bitz sacks Thunder QB Brock Sich.|
Late in the second quarter, it appeared the Hilltops would be pinned deep in their end of the field, when they started a drive at their own five yard line. On a fairly well-executed march that included a couple of circus catches from receiver Connor Graham, the Hilltops drove for a key score that put them in control of the contest at halftime holding a 13-point lead.
“That is just experience,” said Sargeant. “We went with a different formation.
“We were able to put some guys in spots. Connor Graham made some big catches all the way down the field that set that up. That was Connor’s touchdown.”
Early in the third quarter, Abrook ran in his third touchdown of the contest to give the Hilltops a 27-7 edge.
|QB Jordan Walls threw for 316 yards for the Hilltops.|
Sich completed 13-of-24 passes for 205 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. The Thunder gained 233 yards as a team through the air and 66 yards on the ground.
Hilltops third-year defensive back Logan Bitz helped disrupt the Thunder passing game with three well-timed halfback blitzes. He picked up a key sack in the third quarter after the Hilltops went ahead 27-7.
“That is how I got on the field last year is that coach likes me blitzing,” said Bitz. “That is my kind of calling card I guess.
“It is nice to get out there and show I can get do something different that everybody else doesn’t do, like get out there and make my mark. Hopefully, I will get a couple more this year.”
|Hilltops DB Logan Bitz (#23) and LB Landon Schutte (#46) make a tackle.|
“I woke up this morning in a minor panic attack,” said Bitz. “I was flailing everywhere. I didn’t know what to do.
“I just finally got here, and I think after the first quarter it was finally out when I make a couple of plays and couple of tackles. It was just like, ‘OK, I can play in this league and not be an average player and make some plays. Overall, I can make my mark.’”
|Hilltops RB Kelton McLean picked up a few fourth quarter carries.|
The Thunder return to action this coming Saturday, when they host the Winnipeg Rifles at 4 p.m. at Leibel Field.
The Hilltops return to Saskatoon to host their home opener this coming Saturday against the Calgary Colts at 7 p.m. at Saskatoon Minor Football Field.
Overall, Sargeant liked what he saw from his squad in the opener, but he still sees room for improvement going forward.
“I’m very proud,” said Sargeant. “At the end of the day, I wasn’t happy with how we started with a lot of little mistakes, but you know first game jitters.
|The Hilltops celebrate their season opening victory.|
“There are a lot of correctable things I am still not very happy about, if you know my style. We’re going to pound on these guys hard and keep the expectations even higher, so we come out and play even better.”
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