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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