Sunday, 30 September 2018

Defence delivers first place in PFC to Hilltops

Saskatoon improves to 6-0 downing Huskies 36-16

The Hilltops defence corrals Huskies RB Brandt Burzuk.
    The Saskatoon Hilltops unleashed the beasts on defence.
    On Sunday at Saskatoon Minor Football Field, the Hilltops defence forced 10 turnovers and recorded a pair of sacks powering Saskatoon to a 36-16 victory over the Edmonton Huskies before 762 spectators. The win in the Canadian Junior Football League regular season encounter allowed the Hilltops, who have won the last four straight CJFL titles, to improve to 6-0 to clinch first place in the Prairie Football Conference.
    Saskatoon has won its last 14 games in a row including action in the regular season and playoffs.
    The Huskies fell to 4-2 to remain second in the PFC.
The Hilltops defence takes down Huskies starting QB Tommy Yanchuk.
    With two weeks to play in the regular season, the Huskies would be unable to pass the Hilltops for top spot in the conference due to Sunday’s loss. By winning the only regular season clash between the two sides in 2018, the Hilltops control the standings tiebreaker with the Huskies.
    The first place finish allows the Hilltops to play at home throughout the 2018 CJFL playoffs including the Canadian Bowl league championship game.
    “It is nice knowing that we don’t have to go out on the road for playoffs,” said Hilltops defensive tackle Jesse McNabb. “It is always nice to play in front of our home crowd and give the hometown people a show.”
    It seemed like everyone on the Hilltops defence was stepping up to make plays in the win over the Huskies. Still, the Hilltops were only able to slowly pull away in the contest due to the fact the Huskies defence forced four turnovers of their own.
Huskies backup QB Brendan Guy, left, is sacked by Hilltops DB Logan Bitz.
    Early in the first quarter, a blocked punt by Hilltops linebacker and ace special teamer Riley Keating allowed Saskatoon’s offence to start on Edmonton’s 22 yard-line. A short touchdown drive ensued with Hilltops star quarterback Jordan Walls hitting receiver John Brown with a 10-yard touchdown catch to give the hosts a 7-0 lead.
    An interception by Hilltops middle linebacker Bobby Ehman would turn into a 41-yard field goal from kicker David Solie to give the Toppers a 10-0 edge.
    Edmonton forced Saskatoon to concede a safety right before the first quarter expired, and Saskatoon returned that favour in the second quarter to see the hosts hold a 12-2 edge.
    Hilltops head coach Tom Sargeant said his defensive unit’s success was due to an outstanding game by the defensive line. Star defensive tackle Jesse McNabb had six tackles, defensive tackle and captain Garth Knittig had three tackles, three assisted tackles and one sack and defensive end Connor Guillet had one tackle, three assisted tackles and two fumble recoveries.
MLB Bobby Ehman knocks down a pass for the Hilltops.
  “The D-line, we really challenged them all week,” said Sargeant. “It was great to see them come out and perform up to the level of standard that we expect.
    “They were the difference makers today no question. They just controlled the line of scrimmage, so it was awesome to see. I couldn’t be more proud.”
    While the Hilltops defence had the big highlights of the day, the Hilltops offence still delivered a critical play right before halftime. After forcing the Huskies to turn the ball over on downs, Walls hit receiver Keegan Dicks for a 70-yard pass-and-run touchdown with 23.9 seconds to play in the first half to give the Hilltops a 19-2 lead.
DB Jared Giddings intercepts a pass for the Hilltops.
    Dicks finished the contest hauling in three passes for 112 yards including his one catch for a major score.
    “That was massive,” said Sargeant. “Any time with less than a minute you get something over the top like that, you don’t anticipate that.
    “Keegan is a special player. He has got lots of growing and learning to do. He certainly has that gift of making some big time plays.”
    In the third quarter, the Huskies cut the Hilltops lead to 19-9 scoring a kickoff single from kicker Cole Sabourin and seven-yard rushing touchdown from running back Brandt Burzuk. Edmonton failed to score on a two-point conversion attempt after Burzuk’s touchdown.
    Solie hit a 35-yard field goal for the Hilltops to extend their lead to 22-9 by the end of the third quarter.
RB Brandt Burzuk scores a touchdown for the Huskies.
    Early in the fourth quarter, Hilltops star outside linebacker Cody Peters came up with an interception. Saskatoon proceeded to drive down for another major score as Walls hit fifth-year star receiver Jason Price for a nine-yard touchdown toss to give the hosts a 29-9 lead.
    “I felt like we played unreal out there,” said Peters. “We overcame adversity.
    “They brought it to us, but we answered back with a good response.”
    Burzuk scored on a one-yard plunge for Edmonton to cut Saskatoon’s lead to 29-16 with 6:47 to play in the fourth quarter.
    The Huskies forced the Hilltops offence to go two-and-out to get the ball back. Edmonton’s offensive drive came to an end when starting quarterback Tommy Yanchuk tried to run for a first down on a third-and-seven gamble in his own end only to get drilled short of the first down marker by McNabb.
    After that turnover on downs, the Hilltops scored their final major on an 11-yard run from star running back Joshua Ewanchyna to cement the final at 36-16.
RB Josh Ewanchyna piled up 201 yards rushing for the Hilltops.
    “It was pretty physical,” said Peters of Sunday’s game. “They a little dirty out there to be honest with you, and they like to hit a little bit.
    “It is OK. We answered back out there. I like a team that likes to get a little dirty.”
McNabb appreciated the physical approach of the Huskies as well.
    “It was pretty good,” said McNabb. “There was always lots of good contact in there.
    “You are always playing hard to the whistle, no dirty stuff after. You can’t ask for anything else than that.”
    Walls completed 15-of-25 passes for 243 yards, three touchdowns and zero interception for the Hilltops. Ewanchyna ran the ball 27 times for 201 yards and one touchdown.
    Defensive back Logan Bitz had four tackles, three assisted tackles, one sack and a forced fumble for the Hilltops. Fellow defensive back Jared Giddings had an interception for the Toppers. Saskatoon’s defence forced Edmonton to turn the ball over on downs on five occasions in the contest.
Jordan Walls (#19) threw three touchdown passes for the Hilltops.
    Yanchuk completed 17-of-26 passes for 213 yards, no touchdowns and three interceptions. Burzuk ran the ball 23 times for 144 yards and two touchdowns.
    Huskies linebacker Jassen Brown had six tackles and a fumble recovery.
    “At the end of the day, this was a big game, a key, critical scenario, and we are able to execute the mission,” said Sargeant referring to his club’s first place finish in the PFC. “That feels pretty good.
    “It is not very often you do that after six games. They are a worthy opponent. They are a good football team.
The Hilltops celebrate a 70-yard TD catch from Keegan Dicks, left.
    “It was a good, physical aggressive game. Ultimately, we were able to get the two points (in the standings) that were extremely needed.”
    The Hilltops return to action this coming Sunday, when they travel to Edmonton to take on the Wildcats (2-4). That will be the Toppers final road trip of the 2018 campaign.

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Saturday, 29 September 2018

Blades appear ready to thrill with heart stoppers

Saskatoon starts 3-0 with shootout win over Tigers

Blades G Nolan Maier stones Tigers C Henrik Rybinski on a shootout chance.
    They might need to add a few more defibrillators at the SaskTel Centre, if the host Saskatoon Blades keep playing games like Saturday night’s thriller.
    The local spectators likely won’t mind, because that would mean they get to see the Blades win games like Saturday night’s thriller.
    Taking on the Medicine Hat Tigers, the Blades trailed Saturday’s WHL regular season clash at three different times by scores of 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2. On each of those occasions, the Blades managed to tie things up including a power-play point blast by overage right-winger Max Gerlach that forced a 3-3 draw and overtime with 3:15 to play in the third period.
Riley McKay (#39) celebrates scoring on a shootout chance for the Blades.
    After a scoreless overtime frame, the tension got cranked up for the 3,110 in attendance thanks to a tiebreaking shootout that lasted 10 rounds.
    With the Blades shooting first, Saskatoon star sophomore centre Kirby Dach and Tigers captain James Hamblin traded goals in the first round.
    Blades star netminder Nolan Maier and Tigers Danish import goalie Mads Sogaard, who was making his first career WHL regular season start, ensured no one scored through the next seven rounds. During that stretch, the Blades faithful had to wait nervously on pins and needles as six Tigers shooters could have potentially won the game for the visitors had it not been for the work put in by Maier.
James Hamblin had two goals and an assist for the Tigers.
    In the ninth round, Blades overage offensive defenceman Dawson Davidson beat Sogaard giving the hosts a chance to win the game.
    Tigers right-winger Bryan Lockner proceeded to thwart those hopes scoring after Davidson to force a 2-2 tie and a 10th round in the tiebreaker.
    In round 10, Blades tough guy left-winger Riley McKay snapped a shot past Sogaard to put the hosts up 3-2 in the shootout.
    Maier sealed the win making a pad save on Tigers centre Henrik Rybinski, who tried to score on a backhand deke.
    With that stop, the host side’s fans at the SaskTel Centre were able to exhale as the Blades skated away with a 3-2 win in the shootout and a 4-3 overall victory in the contest to improve to 3-0. The Tigers record moved to 1-3-0-1 with the extra time setback.
    The Blades have missed the playoffs for the last five straight seasons, which included falling out of a playoff position inside of the final 10 games in each of the past two campaigns.
Tigers G Mads Sogaard makes a save on a busy first career WHL start.
    After posting a 35-33-3-1 record last season playing out of an incredibly tough East Division, hopes are high the Blades can return to the post-season in the current 2018-19 campaign.
    Saskatoon won its first two games over the Swift Current Broncos by a combined score of 10-1. With that performance, the Blades found themselves rated 10th on the CHL’s Top 10 rankings for this past week. 
    That marked the first time the Blades have made those rankings since the 2012-13 season, when they hosted the Memorial Cup, finished first in the East Division and last made the WHL playoffs.
Max Gerlach scored to force overtime for the Blades.
    Against the Tigers on Saturday, the Blades showed a lot of resolve battling back to force a tie score on the three occasions Medicine Hat went up by one goal.
    There were glaring times the Blades showed they were in early season form as well, which is to be expected at this part of the campaign.
    Hamblin gave the Tigers a 1-0 lead at the 3:05 mark of the first period, when his bad angle shot from the right corner boards found its way past Maier.
    After Blades captain Chase Wouters scored just over seven minutes later to force a 1-1 tie, the hosts fell behind again on another “oops.”
    Blades veteran defenceman Jackson Caller attempted to make a backhanded pass along his own blue-line and it was picked off by Hamblin.
Captain Chase Wouters scored the Blades first goal of the night.
    The 19-year-old product of Edmonton, Alta., sped into the Saskatoon zone on a breakaway and potted his second of the contest to give the Tigers a 2-1 edge heading into the first intermission.
    After a scoreless second, Blades rookie Norwegian import left-winger Kristian Roykas-Marthinsen snapped home his first career WHL regular season goal to knot the score up at 2-2 just 62 seconds into the third.
    Medicine Hat appeared to restore order going ahead 3-2 scoring on the power-play at the 8:48 mark of the third, when right-winger Hayden Ostir wired home a setup pass from Hamblin.
Josh Paterson had two assists for the Blades on Saturday.
    That created the stage for the dramatics late in the third, overtime and the shootout.
    Maier made 29 stops over 65 minutes and turned away 8-of-10 shooters in the shootout to pick up the win.
    Sogaard turned away 39 shots over 65 minutes and 7-of-10 shooters in the shootout to take the extra time setback for the Tigers.
    Blades 19-year-old right-winger Josh Paterson had two assists for the hosts making his debut in the current campaign. Paterson missed Saskatoon’s first two regular season games with an upper body injury.
    Overall, the Blades showed their supporters they could be in for a fun and enjoyable season.
    Like the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders, the Blades gave their fans moments to make them aware the 2018-19 campaign won’t always be a joyride.
The Blades begin to celebrate their victory on Saturday night.
    With that in mind, it appears spectators will enjoy the fact they visited the SaskTel Centre on most nights for a Blades game.
    They might even get that enjoyment following the team on the road, as the Blades return to action on Sunday traveling to Prince Albert to take on their archrivals the Raiders (4-0) at 6 p.m. at the Art Hauser Centre.

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Thursday, 27 September 2018

Hilltops, Huskies to battle in first place showdown

Expect the Hilltops to come out fired up for a first place showdown.
    In the 2018 season to date, it will be the biggest game in the Prairie Football Conference and arguably the biggest game in the Canadian Junior Football League.
    On Sunday at 1 p.m. at Saskatoon Minor Football Field, the Saskatoon Hilltops will take on the Edmonton Huskies for first place in the PFC in what will be the only regular season meeting between the two sides. The Hilltops currently hold top spot in the PFC with a 5-0 mark, while the Huskies sit second at 4-1.
    If the Hilltops win this contest, they will lock up first place in the PFC. If the Huskies win, they will sit in first place due to holding the standings tiebreaker with the Hilltops.
    Edmonton’s schedule gets quite a bit easier after facing Saskatoon over the final two weeks of the regular season. The Huskies close their regular season slate hosting the Calgary Colts (0-5) on Oct. 6 and the Edmonton Wildcats (2-3) on Oct. 14.
    The squad that finishes first in the PFC locks up home field advantage though the entire CJFL playoffs including the Canadian Bowl national title game.
    “This is really our first playoff game at the end of the day, because it is major ramifications for what takes place,” said Hilltops head coach Tom Sargeant. “Every team wants home field advantage.
    “That is certainly a goal we have set, so we’re going to do everything in our power to come up with a great game plan, make sure the players come out and execute it well and see where it takes us. Film study tells us the Edmonton Huskies are a well-coached, physical football team.”
    The Hilltops and Huskies had a major rivalry in the 2000s with the two sides combining to win the CJFL title in five straight seasons. The Hilltops claimed three straight national titles from 2001 to 2003, while the Huskies won back-to-back national titles in 2004 and 2005.
    The Huskies hit a downturn, but they have returned to their powerhouse form from the past in recent years finishing 6-3 in 2016 and 7-1 last season. Their recent clashes with the Hilltops have been hard fought.
    In the only meeting between the two sides in 2016, the Hilltops pulled out a 29-20 win in Edmonton in Week 2.
Joshua Ewanchyna, right, has been piling up yards for the Hilltops.
    Last season, the two clubs met in the final week of the regular season in Edmonton with first place on the line. The Huskies held a 14-10 lead at halftime before the Hilltops stormed back for a 38-28 victory.
    “We’ve been looking forward to this especially after the game we had against them last year,” said Hilltops star fifth-year receiver Jason Price. “That game was so intense trying to get that first place last year too.
    “This one we’re amped up. We’re ready. We’re going to throw the ball around and fire it up and hopefully take it to them.”
    The Hilltops, who have claimed the last four straight CJFL titles, enter the contest having won their last 13 straight games including action in the regular season and playoffs. Saskatoon has been impressive so far in 2018 having trailed on the scoreboard for just a total of 81 seconds through five outings.
    Fifth-year star quarterback Jordan Walls leads the PFC with 1,270 yards passing having completed 78-of-126 throws for 10 touchdowns and two interceptions.
    Price leads the PFC with 422 yards receiving on 19 catches scoring two touchdowns.
    Hilltops third-year running back Joshua Ewanchyna sits second in the PFC with 442 yards rushing coming off 58 carries and scoring six touchdowns.
    Defensively, sophomore defensive end Connor Delahey leads the Hilltops with three sacks, while defensive tackle Jesse McNabb and linebacker Cody Peters each have two-and-a-half sacks.
    Huskies second-year quarterback Tommy Yanchuk has completed 80-of-148 passes for 1,108 yards, eight touchdowns and three interceptions. Yanchuk’s yardage total ranks third in the PFC.
    Edmonton’s second-year running back in Brandt Burzuk leads the PFC in rushing having run the ball 67 times for 488 yards and scoring five touchdowns.
    Sam Clayton leads the Huskies in receiving hauling in 21 passes for 301 yards and scoring four touchdowns.
    Defensive lineman Kolton Densmore leads the Huskies with three sacks. Defensive back Oshane Samuels has been outstanding making 32 total tackles and one interception.
    Sargeant has a lot of respect for the Huskies.
Cody Peters, left, and Tristan Hering get set to rush the passer.
    “They’re good,” said Sargeant. “Trust me, that is what the film tells you.
    “They do everything proper. They’ve got good plans, and they work hard to execute them.
    “Their defence has always given us fits. They run a thirty-four, a different look than what we are used to, so we have lots of things to sort out and figure out compared to how we played in earlier parts of the year.”
    The Huskies last visited SFM Field way back on Sept. 20, 2015 in a campaign where they failed to make the CJFL playoffs. The Hilltops cruised to a 49-17 blowout victory in that encounter.
    That contest in 2015 seems like a distant memory now.
    In Sunday’s upcoming encounter, Price believes his side will rise to the occasion with a big performance again, because the Hilltops coaching staff prepares their players like they are going to play a powerhouse squad every week.
    “We feel like our team is big enough and strong enough to take it to them,” said Price. “We’re just going to have to play the game that we know we can play and just let our play do the talking.”
    The Hilltops will be powered by some extra emotion in Sunday’s game. Last Friday, legendary Hilltops executive and Canadian Football Hall of Fame member Don McDonald passed away at age 86. McDonald first joined the Hilltops as a player in 1951 and 1952.
    The majority of members on the team found out about his passing right before facing the Regina Thunder at SMF Field last Saturday posting a 48-24 victory. The Hilltops found themselves down 17-16 for a short time before surging to the win.
    A celebration of life for McDonald is set for Saturday at 1:30 p.m. at the Saskatoon Inn, and the Hilltops will take the field against the Huskies the following day.
    “We’re going to play with him (McDonald) in our hearts,” said Price. “We’re going to come out there and play hard for him.
    “(He is) an alumni, director and like a big deal in this community. We’re going to go out there with him in our hearts and play Hilltop football the way he would want us to play it.”
    Sargeant said it is hard to find the words to describe what McDonald meant to the team.
Don McDonald, left, with Lyle Hislop in 2016.
    “There will be a lot of emotion through that, because he has been such an impactful and key leader for the Saskatoon Hilltops,” said Sargeant. “As I said, there is a lot of pride and blessing knowing and working with him. 
    “He is one of the big reasons the Saskatoon Hilltops are on the map. We appreciate what all he has done for us. It was good enough to get him into the (Canadian Football) Hall of Fame.
    “That certainly makes all of us feel pretty prideful about that. We also know that we have a job to do. (There is) a little more incentive to keep honouring his name and doing the right things the way the Saskatoon Hilltops are supposed to be doing them.”

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Monday, 24 September 2018

Durant doesn’t rule out returning to CFL

Darian Durant speaks at the In the End Zone Dinner.
    It was the question everyone wanted Darian Durant to answer.
    How much fun was it to DJ at Gabbo’s Nightclub after winning the 2011 Labour Day Classic?
    Speaking to a packed banquet room in the clubhouse building at Saskatoon Minor Football Field, the legendary former Saskatchewan Roughriders quarterback grinned and answered the query at the Saskatoon Hilltops End Zone Dinner on Saturday night.
    “It was nice,” said Durant. “It took it way back with that one.
    “You know 2011 was a rough year, and after getting that win in the Labour Day Classic, I think that was when (head) coach (Ken) Miller came back for his first game after his retirement. I was just happy to get a win.
    “It was just a regular party, and Gabbo’s was the place to be.”
    Durant was the guest speaker at Saturday’s dinner, where the net proceeds go towards scholarships and bursaries for Hilltops players. A question and answer session was part of the program.
    Of course, the 36-year-old from Florence, South Carolina, was asked if he would return to play in the CFL during the Q and A session. Durant announced his retirement on May 11.
    “You just never know,” said Durant. “I remember we were talking at the table when Kerry Joseph came back in 2014, (and) he came back right before the playoffs.”
Darian Durant, left, shares a laugh with Dave Thomas.
    The signal caller, who played 12 seasons in the CFL, said he retired because his wife gave birth to the couple’s first child in daughter, Amayah Taylor. Amayah Taylor was named after the Roughriders former storied home park, Taylor Field.
    “I wanted to be there every step of the way,” said Durant, who stands 5-foot-11 and weighs 214 pounds. “Now that she is a little bit older, I am kind of itching a little bit.
    “The feeling is coming back, so we’ll what it holds here in a couple of weeks and who may need a quarterback for a playoff run.”
    He was also asked if he thought about coaching.
    “I thought about being the offensive coordinator of the ‘Riders right now,” said Durant, who played for the Roughriders from 2006 to 2016. “Of course, I have my differences with Chris Jones, but I want to see the organization win no question about it.
    “It seems that they need some offensive help (with) the way the defence is playing and special teams is scoring touchdowns. If we can score some offensive touchdowns, we have a Grey Cup team.”
Darian Durant celebrates scoring a touchdown in 2016.
    If Durant was to return to the CFL, that move has to run through the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, who still have the signal caller under contract. After playing the 2017 CFL season with the Montreal Alouettes, Durant was released by that club and signed a one-year deal with the Bombers.
    His separation from the Winnipeg side was a messy one as those associated with the Bombers howled at the fact Durant kept a $70,000 signing bonus. The contract with the Bombers expires in February of 2019.
    Besides the serious queries, Durant was asked questions that were more on the humourous side including his thoughts on end zone dances, giving advice on who to start on a fantasy football team and which Roughriders mom made the best cookies.
    Durant said Karen Newman, who is the mother of Durant’s former teammate and Hilltops alum Graig Newman, made the best cookies.
    “I’ll always remember those cookies,” said Durant, who looked towards Karen Newman in giving his response. “Thank you so much.”
    The man who quarterback the Roughriders to a 45-23 victory over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the 2013 Grey Cup at Taylor Field was asked what he thought about social media.
    “Some guys are just outspoken,” said Durant, who was a reserve quarterback on the Roughriders 2007 Grey Cup championship team. “Some guys don’t know how to express themselves.
Darian Durant (#4) fires a pass down the seam in 2016.
    “I think social media gives you a platform to interact with your fans and interact with people who may never be able to speak to you. It can also be a downfall, because when things aren’t going your way, sometimes you get out of character and say things you don’t mean.
    “I’ve been guilty of that. I’ve been fined numerous times by the league for social media rants. It can be good and bad.”
    When he was asked to do an impersonation of current Roughriders head coach and general manager Chris Jones, Durant played that offer down.
    “I think someone is trying to get me in trouble here,” said Durant with a chuckle. “They probably have their phone recording what I am saying right now.”
    Jones held his current role during Durant’s final season with the Roughriders in 2016. Durant offered up his thoughts on Jones, who has the Roughriders sitting second in the West Division at 8-5.
    “I think he is an excellent coach,” said Durant. “The business side of things we just didn’t see eye-to-eye.
    “You just have to respect that. He is in a position of power, and you have to respect your boss and that is just how that went.”
Darian Durant (#4) throws a pass into the flat in 2016.
    With the Roughriders, Durant sits second in team history for career pass attempts (3,584), completions (2,226), yards (28,507) and touchdown passes (152).
    During his 12 seasons in the CFL, he completed 2,500 out of 4001 passes for 31,740 yards, 167 touchdown passes and 115 interceptions.
    Durant closed the question and answer session saying he was pumped to have had the opportunity to be the guest speaker that night for the dinner to help Saskatoon’s storied Canadian Junior Football League club.
    “I always enjoy coming to Saskatoon,” said Durant. “The tradition here is just amazing.
    “I’ve just been hearing about the success that this Hilltops squad has been having over the years. The commitment to excellence starts here. You guys pave the way for these kids.
    “You guys make it possible. I just want to thank you guys for having me. Keep pushing these kids to not only be the best on the field, but off the field as well.”

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Saturday, 22 September 2018

Hilltops thump Thunder thanks to second half surge

Saskatoon improves to 5-0 with season sweep of archrivals

Hilltops RB Joshua Ewanchyna powers past Regina Thunder LB Davin Williamson.
    For the first time all season, the Saskatoon Hilltops found themselves in an unfamiliar spot.
    On Saturday night at a snowy Saskatoon Minor Football Field, the Hilltops jumped out to a 16-3 lead on their archrivals the Regina Thunder only to see the Thunder roar back with a pair of touchdowns to go in front 17-16 with 2:28 to play in the first half.
    Regina’s go-ahead touchdown came on a 96 yard pass and run play by veteran receiver Greg Lamb, who caught a long streak pass from quarterback Brock Sich.
Hilltops DT Jesse McNabb hits a Thunder ball carrier.
    With those developments, the Hilltops found themselves behind in a game for the first time in the 2018 Canadian Junior Football League regular season.
    The slim deficit didn’t last long.
    With 67 seconds remaining in the first half, the Hilltops forced the Thunder to concede a safety due to bad field position to go ahead 18-17. Hilltops kicker David Solie booted a 21 yard field goal with 6.5 seconds remaining in the first half to give the Hilltops a 21-17 halftime advantage.
    Saskatoon took off in the second half and romped to a 48-24 victory to improve to 5-0 on the campaign. The Hilltops swept the two regular season encounters with the Thunder, who fell to 2-3 with the setback, and claimed the Shrine Bowl Trophy as a result.
QB Jordan Walls threw three touchdown passes for the Hilltops.
    “We needed to face some adversity,” said Hilltops star quarterback Jordan Walls, whose squad locked up a playoff berth with the win. “We definitely didn’t handle it well in the first half, when they started to punch us in the throat.
    “We came back and made our plays, so I was pretty happy with the way that we responded. Our defence stepped up. Our offence made some plays.
    “All in all, it was a good second half.”
    The Thunder seemed intent on pulling out all the stops in trying to manufacture an upset. They tried to recover a short kickoff to open the game only to have the Hilltops field the ball.
    Saskatoon proceeded to drive down and score a touchdown as Walls hit receiver Tanner Rhode with a 27-yard touchdown pass for a 7-0 lead.
Safety Brant Morrow returns a kick for the Hilltops.
    The Thunder responded with a 28 yard field goal from Eric Maximuik on their opening series to cut the Hilltops edge to 7-3.
    With 11.5 seconds remaining in the opening quarter, Walls hit fifth-year star receiver Jason Price with a 24-yard touchdown toss to extend Saskatoon’s advantage to 14-3.
    Regina was forced to concede a safety early in the second quarter to put Saskatoon up 16-3.
    At that point, the visitors came to life offensively. The Thunder scored their first major on a gadget play.
    Sich handed the ball to receiver Lee Brown on an apparent jet sweep, but Brown proceeded to throw the ball to offensive lineman Chad Teskey in the Hilltops end zone for a four yard touchdown pass to cut Saskatoon’s lead to 16-10.
    From there, the Thunder went ahead on Lamb’s big pass reception.
    “In the first half, we had a lot of little mistakes that led to some points and momentum for them,” said Hilltops safety Brant Morrow, who had a key fumble recovery in the first quarter. “In the second half, we came out strong.
OL Chad Teskey hauls in a touchdown catch for the Thunder.
    “We just played our game and kept playing hard the whole second half.”
    After the Hilltops went ahead 21-17 at halftime, they opened the second half scoring 27 unanswered points to go up 48-17.
    In the third quarter, star running back Joshua Ewanchyna capped a long Hilltops scoring drive with a nine yard touchdown run, and Solie hit field goals from 12 and 24 yards out to give Saskatoon a 34-17 advantage.
    On the first play of the fourth quarter, Walls found receiver Keegan Dicks for a 33-yard touchdown toss to put the hosts up 41-17. The Toppers surge was capped by six-yard touchdown run from running back Ben Abrook.
    The Thunder rounded out the contest’s scoring when backup quarterback Blake Scherle hit receiver Michael Letts on an eight-yard touchdown toss with 67 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.
Hilltop DB Logan Bitz sacks Thunder QB Brock Sich.
    Walls didn’t have his best game regarding completing percentage connecting on 13-of-30 passes in the contest. With that said, his 13 completions resulted in 266 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
    The fifth-year veteran said the passing game got better as the game went on.
    “I think it was just the guys finding spots,” said Walls. “That is their job to get open.
    “It is pretty easy for me to find them when they do, so they did their job. Definitely, I wanted to get Jason Price the ball a bit more, and we did so that was nice to have that.”
    Ewanchyna had a big night carrying the ball 18 times for 168 yards and scoring a touchdown. He also caught one pass for 21 yards.
The Hilltops celebrate a touchdown catch from Jason Price (#83).
    Price had the biggest night amongst the Hilltops receivers hauling in four passes for 92 yards and one touchdown.
    Sich completed 16-of-27 passes for 244 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Lamb led the Thunder with 111 yards receiving on two catches, which included his long touchdown reception.
    Linebacker Cody Peters had five solo tackles and one sack for the Hilltops. Defensive back Logan Bitz had a sack for Saskatoon, while Jared Giddings and Evan Kretzer had interceptions.
    Williamson had six total solo tackles and six assisted tackles for the Thunder.
    The Hilltops piled up 257 yards rushing and 287 yards passing as a team. 
Evan Kretzer runs back an interception for the Hilltops.
    The Thunder put up 313 yards passing as a team but were held to 97 yards along the ground.
    Saturday’s encounter had the feel of a rivalry game as it included a lot of extracurricular activity and chippy play on both sides.
    “It is hard not to get mixed up in it,” said Walls. “It is just prairie football.
    “We’ve know these guys for a long time, and we are going to have some of that. It was a little bit chippier than we’ve had in the past, but I like the way we played.”
    “Our coaches always try to get us to stay out of that,” said Morrow. “I really appreciate that about our coaches.
    “They like us to just be out here to play football, so that was what we are doing. I think that kind of gave us an edge.”
    The Thunder return to action on Sept. 30, when they host the Edmonton Wildcats (2-3) at 1 p.m. at Mosaic Stadium in Regina.
The Hilltops celebrate their victory over the Thunder.
    The Hilltops could potentially lock up first place in the Prairie Football Conference in their next outing against the Edmonton Huskies (3-1) on Sept. 30 at 1 p.m. at Saskatoon Minor Football Field. The Huskies need to beat the Winnipeg Rifles (2-2) on Sunday in Edmonton for that scenario to happen.
    “We’re focused on winning the national championship,” said Morrow. “To do that, we just have to play good every week.
    “We just have to look at the team we are playing every week and we have to beat them. We are on to Edmonton now.”

Hilltops announce passing of legendary executive McDonald

Don McDonald, left,with Lyle Hislop in 2016.
    Before Saturday’s game, the Hilltops announced that legendary team executive Don McDonald had passed away.
    McDonald joined the Hilltops as a player suiting up for two seasons in 1951 and 1952. After hanging up his cleats, McDonald became an executive with the team.
    Along with being a Hilltops director, McDonald fulfilled many roles with the club over the decades, which included a stint serving as the team’s president. He was the commissioner of the CJFL for eight years and has had a long involvement with Football Saskatchewan, which included serving eight years as president.
    McDonald was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2016 as a builder. Only two other persons with ties to the Hilltops are members of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame including the late Ron Atchinson, who was inducted as a player in 1978, and the late Ed Henick, who was inducted as a builder in 2003.
    McDonald also overcame at least four major health issues in about the last 15 years of his life. Through those challenges, his mind remained as sharp as ever.
    The Hilltops held a moment of silence before Saturday’s game to remember McDonald. Funeral arrangements are still pending.

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Friday, 21 September 2018

Huskies hold off Rams rally on end zone pick by Lewis

Machart grinds out 121 yards on the ground for U of S

Bowan Lewis, left, holds up the game-saving interception ball.
    Bowan Lewis came up golden when the University of Saskatchewan Huskies desperately needed a play.
    On Friday night at Griffiths Stadium, the Huskies jumped out to a comfortable 30-3 lead in the third quarter of a U Sports regular season clash over their provincial rivals the University of Regina Rams only to see that edge shrink to 30-20 with 11:16 to play in the fourth quarter.
    The Huskies fumbled the ball away on their ensuing offensive series after their lead dwindled to 10 points.
    The Rams proceeded to drive down to the Huskies seven yard line for a first and goal opportunity and appeared poised for another score.
    Rams star quarterback Noah Picton fired a pass into the end zone only to see the ball deflect off the intended receiver into the hands of Lewis with 7:06 to play in the fourth quarter.
Adam Machart piled up 121 yards rushing for the Huskies.
    With that opportune interception, the third-year defensive back swung the momentum back on the Huskies side where it stayed.
    The ensuing Huskies drive ran 4:31 off the clock and resulted in a 26-yard field goal by star kicker Sean Stenger to cap a 33-20 victory before 2,715 spectators.
    The win allows the Huskies, who were rated ninth in the U Sports top 10 rankings, to sit alone in second place in the Canada West Conference with a 3-1 record. The Rams, who were rated eighth in the U Sports top 10 rankings, fall to 2-2 to sit in a tie with the University of Manitoba Bisons for the third and fourth positions in Canada West.
    The Huskies have to be given full marks for not losing their cool, when it seemed everything was going the Rams way.
    When Rams standout running back Kyle Borsa dashed home on a 27-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter to cut the U of S lead to 10 points, the Huskies appeared to tighten up a little bit.
Kyle Borsa (#22) scored two touchdowns for the Rams.
    After Rams linebacker Danny Nesbitt recovered a Huskies fumble at the U of R’s 37 yard line, it appeared everything was unraveling for the host side.
    Lewis’s interception ensured the Rams surge came to an end.
    A composed Huskies offence guided by star quarterback Kyle Siemens went to work on a clock eating drive that covered 72 yards in eight plays resulting in Stenger’s short field goal.
    U of S’s defence rose to the occasion on the Rams next offensive series. The Rams gambled on a third-and-one at their own 48 yard line and Picton’s quarterback sneak was stuffed by the Huskies.
    Overall, the Huskies received key contributions from a number of different players. Running back Adam Machart, who helped the Saskatoon Hilltops win CJFL titles the past three seasons, had his best game with the Huskies carrying the ball 16 times for 121 yards and catching four passes for 19 yards.
Kyle Siemens threw three touchdown passes for the Huskies.
    Siemens had a solid night completing 23-of-33 passes for 283 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. Running back Colton Klassen hauled in six of Siemens passes for 99 yards and two touchdowns.
    Rookie receiver Jesse Kuntz, who previously played for the CJFL’s Calgary Colts, hauled in seven passes for 96 yards and scored one touchdown.
    The Huskies received a pair of sacks from defensive end Tristian Koronkiewicz and single sacks from Riley Pickett, Evan Machibroda and Nathan Cherry.
    Defensive back Josh Hagerty had an end zone interception for the Huskies on the Rams first offensive series of the contest.
    Third-year defensive back Jacob Solie intercepted a tipped pass for the Huskies and ran it back 64 yards for a touchdown with 42.7 seconds to play in the second quarter. Solie’s major gave the Huskies a 21-3 lead at halftime.
    Stud linebacker Ben Whiting topped the Huskies with nine solo tackles.
Rams QB Noah Picton is chased by Huskies DE Riley Pickett.
    With how the game played out, one almost forgets the Rams actually held a 3-0 lead, when rookie kicker Aldo Galvan hit an 11-yard field with 3:08 to play in the first quarter.
    The first quarter ended with Siemens hitting Klassen with a 14-yard touchdown pass to start a run where the Huskies scored 30 straight point. The surge included the Huskies causing the Rams to concede a safety early in the third quarter.
    Picton completed 21-of-34 passes for 271 yards, but his three interceptions proved costly.
Borsa ran the ball 16 times for 96 yards and scored two touchdowns for the Rams. U of R made some suspect play calls in the red zone and likely could have given more touches to Borsa in that area of the field.
    Rams slotback Kyle Moortgat hauled in nine passes for 136 yards on the night.
    Galvan had a 17-yard field goal on the final play of the third quarter to go with his boot in the first quarter.
    The win will likely give the Huskies, who play three of their final four regular season games on the road, a big shot in the arm. U of S likely needs to win just one more contest to qualify for the playoffs.
Huskies DB Jacob Solie (#6) gets set to intercept a tipped pass.
    The Huskies return to action on Sept. 29, when they travel to Calgary, Alta., to face the University of Calgary Dinos.
    The Rams will try to get back on track in their next game on Sept. 29, when they travel to Winnipeg, Man., to face the Bisons in what will be a key contest for both sides.

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Thursday, 20 September 2018

Fearless prediction – Blades will make WHL playoffs in 2018-19

The Blades celebrate a goal from their final game in the 2017-18 season.
    Well folks. You heard it here first.
    The Saskatoon Blades will make the WHL playoffs in the 2018-19 campaign. That is my prediction for “the Bridge City Bunch” this season, and I am sticking to it.
    Saskatoon last made the playoffs back in the 2012-13 campaign, when they hosted the Memorial Cup. That marked the final season of the Blades being owned by long-time owner Jack Brodsky.
    In making that prediction, I can already see the jaded followers of the team falling down on the floor in laughter. Actually, I have a gut feeling the Blades might have a playoff spot locked up when March 2019 begins. That notion might potentially cause the jaded fans to die of laughter, so I hope they can control themselves and be alright.
    Due to the fact the Blades are in the midst of their longest playoff drought in team history spanning the last five consecutive seasons, the “I will believe it when I see it” notion has floated around a number of followers of the charter WHL franchise.
Chase Wouters has been named the Blades new captain.
    Edmonton product Mike Priestner bought the Blades from Brodsky before the start of the 2013-14 campaign. The new regime faced a major rebuilding project due to the fact the Blades’ future was mortgaged to stock the team with a roster worthy of hosting the Memorial Cup in 2013 and a major trade that brought star hometown product Brayden Schenn to the club in the 2010-11 campaign.
    The Blades finished first overall in the WHL in 2010-11 with a 56-13-2-1 record, but were swept in the second round of the playoffs by that season’s eventual WHL champions the Kootenay Ice.
    Under Priestner’s ownership, the Blades have slowly improved. In the 2013-14 campaign, the Blades finished with a 16-51-2-3 record for 37 points in the standings, which was an expected drop after hosting the Memorial Cup.
    The club’s record has improved each season since that time.
    For the past two seasons, the Blades were seeing signs that their lengthy rebuild was paying off and that the club had come out of the funk in the aftermath of hosting the 2013 Memorial Cup. Unfortunately, a playoff berth eluded the squad.
    In 2016-17, the Blades posted a 28-35-7-2 record to sit five points behind the Calgary Hitmen (30-32-8-2) for the second and final wildcard berth in the WHL’s Eastern Conference.
Dawson Davidson will serve as a Blades assistant captain.
    The 2017-18 campaign proved to be more heartbreaking. The Blades posted a 35-33-3-1 regular season record to fall three points shy of the Prince Albert Raiders (32-27-9-4) for the second and final wildcard berth in the Eastern Conference.
    Saskatoon had the seventh most points in the 12-team Eastern Conference, which meant two clubs with worse records made the post-season under the current league playoff format.
    The Blades were playing out of an East Division, which was viewed as one of the toughest divisions seen at any time in the history of the WHL. Saskatoon still put together an 18-17-2-1 mark playing against East Division foes.
    Internally, the Blades must have felt reasonably confident a post-season berth would happen last season, because management decided to bring back the team’s classic Pac-Man jerseys as the club’s regular look before the start of the campaign. The Blades wore the Pac-Man jerseys during a heyday of stellar campaigns in the 1980s and early 1990s.
    Saskatoon will be guided by rookie 34-year-old head coach Mitch Love this season. Love is viewed as one of the best young coaches in the WHL having spent the previous seven seasons with the Everett Silvertips as an assistant coach.
Max Gerlach has scored 30-or-more goals in three straight campaigns.
    The Silvertips finished third overall in the WHL’s regular season standings in 2017-18 with a 47-20-2-3 mark. They advanced to the WHL Championship series falling to the Swift Current Broncos in six games.
    The Blades two biggest draws will be 17-year-old stars in centre Kirby Dach and goalie Nolan Maier. Dach is being pegged as a prospect that could go early in the first round in next year’s NHL Entry Draft, and Maier aims to build off a sensational rookie campaign that saw him named the Blades team MVP as well as rookie of the year.
    On Thursday, the Blades announced their leadership group, and their picks were great ones. Chase Wouters, who is a standout 18-year-old centre, was named the 59th captain in Blades team history.
    Wouters appeared in all of the Blades 72 games last season and finished fourth in team scoring with 18 goals and 33 assists, while posting a plus-seven rating in the plus-minus department. He was named the scholastic player of the year for the Eastern Conference posting a 90 per cent average in Grade 11 and an 89 per cent average last year in Grade 12.
    Having just returned from the training camp of the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning, Wouters, who is from Lloydminster, Alta/Sask., had earned the opportunity to be the Blades leader with his efforts on and off the ice.
Josh Paterson had a breakout season for the Blades in 2017-18.
    Overage defenceman Dawson Davidson, overage right-winger Max Gerlach and 19-year-old right-winger Josh Paterson were named assistant captains.
    Davidson and Gerlach know all the ropes of the WHL. Davidson has appeared in 233 career regular season games with the Kamloops Blazers, Regina Pats and Blades displaying an offensive touch on the back end collecting 24 goals and 92 assists over that time.
    The Moosomin, Sask., product had 10 goals and 33 assists in 69 regular season games split between the Pats and Blades in 2017-18.
    Gerlach, who recently returned from the training camp of the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes, has appeared in 209 career regular season games split between the Medicine Hat Tigers and the Blades. Over that time, the Flower Mound, Texas, product has registered 99 goals and 78 assists.
    In each of his three previous WHL seasons, Gerlach has potted 30-or-more goals and collected 35 goals and 35 assists in 65 regular season games split between the Tigers and Blades in 2017-18.
    Paterson has improved steadily in his three campaigns to date with the Blades. The Edmonton, Alta., product had a breakout campaign in 2017-18 for the Blades appearing in all 72 regular season games netting 31 goals and 22 assists, which were both career highs.
Kirby Dach is one of the Blades top players to watch this season.
    Another player to watch will be tough-guy forward Riley McKay. The 19-year-old McKay was acquired by the Blades in an off-season trade with the Spokane Chiefs. Last season, McKay recorded four goals, nine assists and a WHL leading 152 penalty minutes in 62 regular season games.
    Standing 5-foot-11 and weighing 192 pounds, the Swan River, Man., product has displayed a good offensive touch coming up through the Manitoba minor hockey system, and he might turn into more of a power forward.
    Overall, the Blades have a solid roster that has been mainly built through the WHL Bantam Draft and supplemented with some sound trades.
    The Blades open the regular season traveling to Swift Current on Friday night to take on the Broncos at 7 p.m. at the Credit Union i-Plex. Those two clubs go at it again on Saturday at 7 p.m. at the SaskTel Centre in the Blades home opener.
    The overall hard work everyone in the Blades organization has put in over the past five years is set to show returns in a big way.

Back in the Express with Pilon

Garrett Pilon is embarking on his professional hockey career.
    I was back in the pages of the Saskatoon Express this week with a story on Washington Capitals prospect Garrett Pilon.
    Pilon was a graduate of the Saskatoon minor hockey system, and for the past three seasons, he became a star playing in the WHL for the Kamloops Blazers and Everett Silvertips. In 207 regular season games split between the Blazers and Silvertips, Pilon recorded 69 goals and 123 assists.
    He collected career highs in goals (34) and assists (46) appearing in 69 regular season games split between the Blazers and Silvertips last season.
    Pilon has a signed three-year NHL entry-level contract with the Capitals and is currently playing pre-season games with the defending Stanley Cup champions.
    The story on Pilon can be found right here.

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