Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Hilltops could be “home sweet home” for bulk of remaining 2018 season

Tanner Rhode, left, celebrates scoring a TD for the Hilltops.
    It appears the Saskatoon Hilltops could experience the comforts of their new state of the art clubhouse and a totally refurbished Saskatoon Minor Football Field for most of the rest of the 2018 campaign.
    The Hilltops, who have won the last four straight Canadian Junior Football League championships, sit first in the Prairie Football Conference with a 4-0 record. In scheduling quirk that doesn’t happen often, the Toppers will close their regular season schedule playing three of their last four games at home.
    The first two games of that stretch stand as the biggest games to date in the campaign for Saskatoon.
    On Saturday, the Hilltops host their provincial rivals the Regina Thunder (2-2) at 7 p.m. at SMF Field. On Sunday, Sept. 30, the Hilltops face the Edmonton Huskies (3-1) for a 1 p.m. showdown at SMF Field.
    If the Hilltops win both those encounters, they will be guarantee the opportunity to host one of two PFC semifinal playoff games. Depending on what happens to the Winnipeg Rifles over that period of time, the Hilltops could lock up first overall in the PFC and home field advantage through the entire CJFL playoffs, if they win their next two games.
    The PFC champion this year will host the CJFL championship game, the Canadian Bowl.
    Of course if the Hilltops lose one or both of their next two games, then all sorts of different scenarios could play out.
    In playing three of their first four games on the road, the Hilltops extended their overall road winning streak to 22 games including action in the regular season and playoffs. The Toppers have been sensational away from home.
    With that said, most football teams would prefer to play in key playoff encounters at home in front of their own fans.
    At the moment, anyone that is part of the Hilltops will tell you that the only thing that matters right now is the upcoming clash with the rival Thunder.
David Solie jets upfield for the Hilltops.
    When the Thunder faced the Hilltops last season at SMF Field, the Regina side posted a thrilling 29-26 comeback victory.
    Since that encounter on Sept. 9, 2017, the Hilltops have won their last 12 straight overall games including action in the regular season and playoffs. They downed the Thunder in last year’s PFC held at SMF Field 36-24.
    The two sides opened their respective 2018 regular season schedules against each other back on Aug. 18 at Mosaic Stadium in Regina and the Hilltops romped to a 41-7 victory. That proved to be the first time in his CJFL career third-year Thunder quarterback Brock Sich started against the Hilltops.
    In that clash, Sich appeared to get locked on a couple of targets, but you can expect him to be a lot more poised in Saturday’s game in Saskatoon. On the season, Sich has completed 65-of-116 passes for 956 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions.
    Veteran Thunder receiver Lee Brown is having another outstanding campaign hauling in 25 passes for 377 yards and scoring two touchdowns. Sophomore Brayden Long tops the Thunder in rushing with 53 carries for 279 yards and one touchdown.
    On defence, Davin Williamson had led the way for the Thunder with 25 total tackles and nine total assisted tackles.
    Guided by head coach Scott MacAulay, the Thunder will be ready to show they are a lot better than the end result showed in the season opener.
    The Hilltops are always looking to continually improve, but they have as close to outstanding as you can get in starting 4-0 and outscoring the opposition 217-23.
    Fifth-year quarterback Jordan Walls is having another strong campaign in his second season as Saskatoon’s starter. So far in 2018, Walls has completed 65-of-96 passes for 1,004 yards, seven touchdowns and two interceptions.
    Third-year running back Ben Abrook leads the Hilltops in rushing with 56 carries for 390 yards and five touchdowns.
Thunder QB Brock Sich faced big Hilltops pressure on Aug. 18.
    Walls has a trio of dynamic pass catchers to lean on in Jason Price, Tanner Rhode and David Solie.
Of course, the Hilltops offence line combined to take the PFC offensive player of the week award after the Toppers crushed the Colts in Calgary 79-7 last Saturday.
    Saskatoon’s defence has playmakers all over the place in linebacker Cody Peters, defensive tackle Garth Knittig and safety Brant Morrow.
    Guided by legendary head coach Tom Sargeant, the Hilltops will to everything they can to ensure their play doesn’t slip in this game.
    While the Hilltops will be favoured, this contest could still go either way.
    If the Toppers pull out victory, they will take a big step towards ensuring they can continue to enjoy the comforts of home.

Rams/Huskies rivalry renews for key clash

Noah Picton fires a pass downfield for the Rams.
    A radio interview once showed how intense the rivalry clashes between the University of Regina Rams and University of Saskatchewan Huskies could be.
    In the week leading up the a Canada West semifinal playoff encounter between the two sides in 2007 at Regina’s historic Taylor Field, legendary Rams head coach Frank McCrystal appeared on a Regina morning radio show hosted by Michael Ball, who is the Rams play-by-play voice and a former receiver from the team’s CJFL days. The two were out to stir the pot before the post-season contest.
    If you bought your tickets in advance of the particular game, you paid quite a lot less for your ticket as opposed to game day, when the cost of a ducat went up quite a bit.
    On the radio show, McCrystal said the ticket prices were set up that way to rip off all the Huskies fans that came down from Saskatoon to watch that playoff clash, because they are not smart enough to buy their tickets in advance. McCrystal said that Rams fans were smart enough to buy their tickets in advance and get a good deal.
    The Rams ultimately won that playoff battle 19-13.
    Heading into Friday’s U Sports regular season game between the Rams and Huskies at 7 p.m. at Griffiths Stadium in Saskatoon, there hasn’t been anywhere near that type of build up for this contest. With that said, it is a huge game for both teams.
    The Rams and Huskies are tied for the second and third positions in Canada West with identical 2-1 records trailing the 3-0 University of Calgary Dinos.
    The winner of this latest clash between the Rams and Huskies would be set in a pretty good spot heading into the second half of the regular season with a 3-1 mark. For the short term, a win would be a big boost to either side both guided by relatively new coaching staffs.
    Steve Bryce, who is a former Rams player from their CJFL days, took over as head coach in 2016 after Mike Gibson left after a one season stint.
    Ultimately, Bryce took over for McCrystal, who retired after his 2014 farewell campaign.
Kyle Siemens looks to fire a pass downfield for the Huskies.
    Scott Flory, who is a former star offensive lineman for the Huskies, took over as head coach after legendary Huskies Canadian Football Hall of Fame head coach Brian Towriss retired following the 2016 season. Flory has been tabbed with taking the Huskies into the future.
    If last year’s game was any indication, the spectators at Griffiths Stadium should expect an offensive showdown. In their only meeting of the 2017 campaign, the Rams outgunned the Huskies 50-40 on Sept. 29 at Griffiths Stadium.
    Rams star quarterback Noah Picton completed 33-of-44 passes for 388 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions in the win. Huskies star quarterback Kyle Siemens completed 38-of-57 passes for 489 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions in the loss.
    So far this season, Picton has completed 74-of-103 passes for 1,091 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions. Siemens has completed 58-of-100 passes for 832 yards, eight touchdowns and two interceptions.
    Both pivots are on their respective fifth and final years of U Sports eligibility, so Friday’s game will be one of the final times they go head-to-head. The Rams and Huskies play again in Regina on Oct. 26.
    In recent years, the rivalry between the Rams and the Huskies has been a shadow of what it once was due to the fact both sides are long removed from any post-season success. The Rams last appeared in the Canada West championship game in 2012, and the Huskies were last in the conference final in 2009.
    Who knows, Friday’s encounter might reignite the rivalry.

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