Sunday, 14 October 2018

Ewanchyna hits 1,000-yard mark in Hilltops’ regular season finale

Josh Ewanchyna surpasses 1,000 rushing on this carry.
    Josh Ewanchyna obtained what seemed like the unachievable milestone.
    On Sunday at Saskatoon Minor Football Field, the third-year Saskatoon Hilltops running back piled up 177 yards rushing on 24 carries and scored four touchdowns as the Hilltops romped to a 48-7 victory over the Winnipeg Rifles in the CJFL regular season finale for both sides. Thanks to that effort, Ewanchyna eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark in rushing for the season.
    The graduate of Saskatoon’s Holy Cross High School Crusaders football team carried the ball 134 times for 1,007 yards and scored 14 touchdowns appearing in seven of the Hilltops eight regular season games. He missed the Toppers first regular season game with a minor injury.
    After eclipsing 1,000 yards rushing near the midway point of the fourth quarter, Ewanchyna was taken out of the game to polite applause, and he received an embrace from Hilltops receiver, former Holy Cross teammate and good friend David Solie.
    “I didn’t think it was a realistic at the start of the season,” said Ewanchyna, who stands 5-foot-10 and weighs 195 pounds. “With our O-line up front, they made it happen for me, so it was awesome.”
David Solie (#2) embraces Josh Ewanchyna.
    Having missed the Hilltops regular season opener, Ewanchyna’s odds of rushing for over 1,000 yards were long, but could be accomplished with some big outings. He made the big games happen being named the offensive player of the week three times in the Prairie Football Conference.
    With those efforts, the 20-year-old still needed to gain 170 yards rushing on Sunday to hit the 1,000 yard rushing mark. 
    After hitting that accomplishment, Ewanchyna was pumped about that development and the fact the team’s coaches let him go after that milestone.
    “It feels unreal,” said Ewanchyna, who led the PFC in rushing yards. “I expected it to happen a little sooner.
    “I wanted to get off as soon as possible. We ended up getting it. It was a great feeling.
    “My O-line stayed out there with me to help us get to that milestone. I can’t thank those guys enough for doing that, and even the coaches putting enough trust in me just to get those yards and get out of there without any injuries or anything extra done to me.”
Josh Ewanchyna ran for 177 yards and four TDs on Sunday.
    Ewanchyna became the first Hilltops running back to surpass 1,000 yards rushing in a season since Wayndel Lewis in 2014. Lewis was in his fifth and final season with the Hilltops in that campaign, and he carried the ball 130 times for 1063 yards and scored nine touchdowns. He was named the offensive player of the year for the CJFL in 2014.
    Hilltops head coach Tom Sargeant said it isn’t easy to surpass 1,000 yards rushing in a season.
    “It is real special in the fact that he didn’t play in the first game,” said Sargeant. “He got hurt in the alumni game, so he has been battling an injury all year.
    “The look in his eye he really wanted it. It is my job as a coach when players want things you coach into it.
    “The offensive line wanted it just as bad for Josh (Ewanchyna). It is a team accomplishment. It is something that people can put on the mantle.”
    The Hilltops piled up a number of milestones with Sunday’s victory. With the win, they finish the regular season with a perfect 8-0 record having outscored the opposition 402-70 in those contests.
QB Jordan Walls (#19) surpassed 2,000 yards passing.
    In 2018, Saskatoon has trailed on the scoreboard for just a total of 81 seconds.
    Star quarterback Jordan Walls completed 15-of-20 passes for 277 yards, three touchdowns and one interception on Sunday. On the season, Walls surpassed 2,000 yards in passing completing 122-of-197 passes for 2,010 yards, 18 touchdowns and four interceptions.
    Solie, who is the Hilltops kicker, surpassed 100 points in scoring piling up 107 points coming off two touchdowns for 12 points, 16 field goals for 48 points, 46 converts worth one point and one rouge.
    Fifth-year star receiver Jason Price hauled in five passes for 123 yards. He topped the PFC in receiving yards at 709 coming off 31 catches, and he scored four touchdowns.
    On the defensive side of the ball, defensive tackle Garth Knittig had a pair of sacks on Sunday, while defensive tackle Jesse McNabb, and defensive ends Tristan Hering, Connor Guillet and Connor Delahey each had one sack.
    Knittig, who has been dubbed “the Delisle Destroyer” by Hilltops play-by-play voice Drew Wilson, has 3.5 sacks this season to go with 19 solo tackles, and he has enjoyed the fact he has made those contributions to the team.
DT Garth Knittig, left, tracks down a sack for the Hilltops on Sunday.
    “It was fun,” said Knittig. “I have to give thanks to my partner inside there Jesse (McNabb).
    “We take turns flushing each other to the quarterback. It just works out.”
    McNabb lead the Hilltops with 4.5 sacks this season.
    The Hilltops led Sunday’s game 27-0 at halftime and 48-0 by the end of the third quarter. Ewanchyna ran in touchdowns from three, 24, 16 and one yards out. Walls hit Solie with a three-yard touchdown pass, John Brown with a 14-yard touchdown toss and Rylan Kleiter with a 50-yard touchdown strike.
    The Rifles got on the board when fifth string quarterback and regular receiver Gabriel Grenier broke a run 91 yards for a touchdown with 74 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. 
Rylan Kleiter (#7) tears downfield on a 50-yard TD reception.
    Due to injuries at the quarterback position, the Rifles started Grenier and substituted defensive back Troy Wilson in a quarterback.
    Grenier completed 12-of-27 passes for 145 yards and ran the ball eight times for 118 yards including his long touchdown scamper.
    The Rifles finished fourth in the PFC with a 3-5 record.
    The Hilltops, who topped the PFC, and Rifles will go at it again in a conference semifinal playoff game this coming Sunday at SFM Field at a time to be announced.
    Also on Sunday, the Hilltops honoured fifth-year players Adam Benkic, Adam Ewanchyna, Bobby Ehman, Cody Peters, Guillet, Price, Walls and Kirk Simonsen with the team’s traditional walk out of the tunnel with their parents.
OL Kirk Simonsen (#51) walks out of the tunnel with his parents.
    In the two other PFC games on Sunday, the Regina Thunder traveled to Calgary and dumped the Colts 70-6, and the Huskies downed the Wildcats 42-17 in an all-Edmonton clash in the Alberta capital.
    The Huskies (6-2) finish second in the PFC and will host the Thunder (5-3) in the other conference semifinal this coming Sunday.
    The Wildcats (2-6) and Colts (0-8) finish out of the playoff picture at fifth and sixth in the conference respectively.
    The Hilltops are trying to win the CJFL title for an unprecedented fifth straight year and for the seventh time in the last eight years. Knittig can’t wait to start playing in the single elimination post-season games.
The Hilltops celebrate finishing the regular season 8-0.
    “It definitely amps it up a little bit,” said Knittig. “You get a little more nervous for games, but we’ve been in these situations before. We’re ready to go.”

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Saturday, 13 October 2018

Leason brings back the magic in Raiders victory

Brett Leason scored a creative winning goal for the Raiders.
    PRINCE ALBERT, Sask. – Brett Leason pulled off a move that Mike Modano likely never tried with the Prince Albert Raiders.
    With the Raiders locked in a 1-1 draw with the visiting Red Deer Rebels at the Art Hauser Centre, Leason tried a calculated dump into the Red Deer zone. The talented right-winger dumped the puck into the corner of the Rebels zone on a rush and the dump in came right back to him, when he skated to the front of the Red Deer net.
    The 19-year-old product of Calgary, Alta., quickly blasted home his seventh goal of the season to put the host side up 2-1. That score held up as the final as the Raiders send home an appreciative standing room crowd of 2,706 at their 2,580 seat facility home happy.
    “I saw the D (defenceman) had a bad gap, so I figured that was the time to use it,” said Leason, who was a plus-two in the plus-minus department on the night. “It worked out well.
The Raiders celebrate Brett Leason’s winning goal.
    “I never practiced that. It was my first try, and it worked pretty well. It is all good.”
    Leason’s move impressed veteran Raiders head coach Marc Habscheid, who has seen his share of creativity during his time in the sport of hockey.
    “He (Leason) is a talented guy,” said Habscheid. “He is a skilled guy. He has the mojo going, and when that happens, you try things.
    “He is the type of player that can pull off things like that. He has had a good year. He is very intelligent.
    “He is gangly. He kind of moves all over. He is gifted with the puck. That was obviously a huge goal.”
    A gifted point producer coming up through the minor hockey ranks in Calgary, Leason was selected in the third round and 50th overall in the 2014 WHL Bantam Draft by the Tri-City Americans. Buried among the Americans forward group, he was traded in the early stages of last season to the Raiders.
Brett Leason had a goal and an assist in the Raiders win on Saturday.
    Leason, who stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 199 pounds, has jumped out to a hot start this season leading the Raiders in scoring with seven goals and 12 assists helping them post a 9-1 record. The Raiders are also rated second in the CHL Top 10 rankings.
    In 54 regular season games with the Raiders last season, Leason recorded 15 goals and 17 assists. Habscheid said Leason’s game has steadily progressed upwards, since he joined the Raiders.
    “I think he has improved a lot,” said Habscheid. “He plays much faster, and that is what we wanted from him.
    “We knew he had the skill. People questioned his skating, but we want him to play fast. He was committed to that, and he worked on that.
    “Now, he plays as fast as anybody out there. With the size and strength and skill that he has, he is tough to handle.”
    Backed a huge contingent of family in the stands, Leason said he is in the best groove he has ever had during this time in the WHL.
Sean Montgomery scored the Raiders first goal on Saturday.
    “My confidence level is pretty high,” said Leason, who is playing in his third full season on the major junior circuit. “I’m playing good hockey.
    “With the team of course 9-1, it (his confidence) is up really high right now.”
    Leason said he wants to keep playing well to make his family proud. His father, Darryl, and uncle, Michael, were stars with the Regina Rams in both the Canadian Junior Football League and in U Sports in the 1990s and early 2000s. While Brett excels at a different sport, he wants to do as well in hockey as Darryl and Michael did in football.
    “They were definitely big names growing up, so I want to try and perform like they did,” said Brett Leason. “I’m working on that.”
    The Raiders struck 68 seconds into Saturday’s tilt. With the Rebels defence having collapsed down on their goal, Leason found centre Sean Montgomery with a pass at an open side of the Red Deer net, and Montgomery potted his second tally of the season for a 1-0 lead.
Ethan Anders makes one of his 25 saves in goal for the Rebels.
    The Rebels drew even at 1-1 at the 4:07 mark of the first, when captain Reese Johnson powered home a one-time feed from linemate Josh Tarzwell.
    From there, the goalies on both sides took over. Ian Scott turned away 28 shots to pick up the win in goal for the Raiders included stoning Tarzwell at point-blank range late in the third period.
Ethan Anders stopped 25 shots taking the setback in goal for the Rebels (5-3-1).
    Scott received some great help from his defencemen, which included a couple of big shot blocks from Raiders 19-year-old rearguard Jeremy Masella late in the third period.
Ian Scott makes one of his 28 saves for the Raiders on Saturday.
    Leason said it was great to get a win in front of the big crowd that came out to the Art Hauser Centre after the Raiders posted a 3-1 record playing their previous four straight games on the road.
    “Playing in front of a crowd like that, it was good,” said Leason. “We were going the whole time. I’d like that to continue.
    “It definitely gets us going. When the crowd was chanting there, everyone was just feeling it.”
    The Rebels return to action this coming Friday, when they travel to Edmonton to face the Oil Kings.
    The Raiders return to action on Sunday, when they travel to Saskatoon to face the Blades (7-2) at 2 p.m. at the SaskTel Centre. There is a good chance the Raiders will bring a healthy contingent of fans down to “the Bridge City.”
The Raiders and Rebels scrum it up in the third period.
    Habscheid hopes the Raiders followers know that they do have a positive impact on the team. 
    In the third period, the cheer of the Raiders faithful help give the atmosphere more of a playoff feel. 
    The bench boss was happy to see the big crowd out at the team’s home rink on Saturday night.
    “We really appreciate it,” said Habscheid. “Especially in this day and age, you look at all the sports the entertainment dollar it is tough to get.
    “We appreciate the people coming to the rink and spending it with us. It certainly helps our players for sure. We’re a smaller franchise and to get that kind of support helps not only the franchise itself but more importantly our players.
The Raiders salute the crowd at the Art Hauser Centre.
    “They come home, and they’ve worked hard to get a decent record and we’re ranked whatever that is worth. It is nice to have the people come out and appreciate the kids the way they do and it certainly helps them on the ice.”

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Friday, 12 October 2018

Gerlach regains sharpshooting form in Blades OT win

Max Gerlach (#9) is embraced by Chase Wouters (#44).
    Max Gerlach was thankful his hex around the net was a short one.
    After going goalless and pointless over a span of five games, the 20-year-old product of Flower Mound, Texas, returned to his sharpshooting form in the nick of time for the Saskatoon Blades.
    With the Blades training the visiting Red Deer Rebels 2-1 on Friday night at the SaskTel Centre, Gerlach wired home his second goal of the contest with 15.3 seconds to play in the third period to knot the score up at 2-2 and force overtime. 
    In overtime, Gerlach took a feed from linemate Josh Paterson and wired home his hat trick goal to the top left corner of the Rebels net with 76 seconds to play in the extra frame to deliver the Blades to a 3-2 victory in the WHL regular season contest played before 3,239 spectators.
    Looking back at his string of goalless games after Friday’s win, Gerlach recalled a bit of bad luck he had around the net with Paterson on the ice, when the Blades downed the Oil Kings in Edmonton 5-3 on Oct. 3.
Max Gerlach fired home a hat trick for the Blades on Friday night.
    “Things weren’t just going in,” said Gerlach. “I noticed a couple of pucks were flying off my stick and kind of bobbling.
    “Even in Edmonton, I kind of had an empty net and Patty (Josh Paterson) kind of skated in front of me and blocked it. I was dealing with a little bit of adversity, but we were still getting the wins on the road, so it wasn’t too big of a concern.
    “I’m just glad I could help out tonight.”
    Gerlach started the campaign netting four goals and two assists in the Blades first three regular season games. The stretch of going pointless in five games followed.
    Blades head coach Mitch Love noticed that Gerlach started to get a bit over anxious.
Rebels goalie Ethan Anders stops Blades captain Chase Wouters (#44).
    “I know Max (Gerlach) was pressing a little bit in terms of trying to find the back of the net,” said Love, whose Blades won their fourth straight game. “He had an early hot start to his year and then things dried up for him a little bit.
    “Again, guys like him find the back of the net. Hopefully, that is a confidence builder for him.
    “Guys that find the back of the net like him tend to kind of go on bits of streaks. Hopefully, that is something that he continues to do.”
    Returning to action after being off for a stretch of five straight days, the Blades fell behind 1-0 to the Rebels just 51 seconds into the contest when Russian import forward Oleg Zaytsev fired home his fourth of the season.
Captain Reese Johnson breaks down the ice for the Rebels.
    From there, the two squads engaged in a lot of back and forth action up and down the ice for most of the game.
    At the 7:10 mark of the second period, the Blades tied things up at 1-1 working on a five-on-three power play, when Gerlach sniped home his first of the contest.
    The Rebels went back in front 2-1 at the 10:50 mark of the second on a power-play goal from overage right-winger Jeff de Wit. That set the stage for the dramatics inside of the final minute of the third period and overtime.
    The Blades have won all three of their home outings to date, but they’ve needed come-from-behind efforts in their last two contests at the SaskTel Centre including Friday’s clash with the Rebels. Back on Sept. 29, the Blades trailed the visiting Medicine Hat Tigers 2-1 heading into the third period before rallying for a 4-3 victory after a tiebreaking shootout.
    Love would prefer to pull out wins without having to pull out any comeback type heroics.
Blades RW Max Gerlach, right, eludes the check of Rebels RW Jeff de Wit.
    “It has been back to back home games here where we’ve been down going into the third period,” said Love. “I’m not sure we want to put ourselves in that position too often.
    “Good hockey teams find ways to win, and we’ve been fortunate the last couple of nights on home ice to do that. We don’t want to get in the habit of that. We’re going to have to definitely tighten up a few things here and find a way to play 60 minutes.”
    Nolan Maier made 23 saves to pick up the win in goal for the Blades, who improved to 7-2. Ethan Anders turned away 34 shots in goal for the Rebels, who saw their record move to 5-2-1.
    Gerlach said the Blades are happy with their record after nine games, but his squad still has a lot of room to improve, which is typical in the early stages of a campaign.
Kirby Dach turns up ice for the Blades.
    “I think the coaching staff is moderately happy with us,” said Gerlach. “I think there are lots of things that we can get better at like our start and just playing a full 60 minutes.
    “You could see when we kind of took care of things late in the second and kind of the third period, we’re a team that definitely had a lot of skill and speed up front. Our backend is great back there too, and we have two great goaltenders. I think if we can piece together 60 minutes every single night we can be one of the top teams in the league this year.”
    The Rebels now travel to Prince Albert to face the Raiders (8-1) at 7 p.m. at the Art Hauser Centre. The Raiders, who are rated second in the CHL Top 10 Rankings, travel to Saskatoon on Sunday to face the Blades at 2 p.m. at the SaskTel Centre.
    That encounter will be the Blades next game, and Love is expecting another big battle in that contest.
The Blades celebrate their overtime victory on Friday night.
    “We will get back in here tomorrow after a good night’s rest and try to correct a few things heading into that game,” said Love. “Again, they (the Raiders) are a very good hockey club that we are going to be battling with all year long for the division.
    “We’re going to have to be at our best on Sunday, and a lot sharper than I thought tonight.”

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Thursday, 11 October 2018

Morrow fills big shoes as Hilltops starting safety

Brant Morrow runs back a punt for the Hilltops.
    Brant Morrow focuses on being the best player he can be and adds the James Vause influence is there.
    In his sophomore Canadian Junior Football League campaign, Morrow stepped into the role of starting safety for the defensive unit of the Saskatoon Hilltops, who have won the last four straight league titles. The 19-year-old takes over a spot that was held by James Vause, who graduated from the Hilltops program after a distinguished four-year career.
    Vause was a Prairie Football Conference all-star last season, and during his career, he might have been the Hilltops best representative in the community. As a rookie last season, Morrow was impressed how well Vause interacted with people from all walks of life.
    “James, he is more than a good football player,” said Morrow, whose Hilltops close the regular season on Sunday taking on the Winnipeg Rifles at 1 p.m. at Saskatoon Minor Football Field. “He is an awesome guy too the way he treats his teammates.
    “In the community, he always got out into the community. This year, I’ve tried to do that more. He treated everybody the same.
    “He treated everybody nicely and with respect. That is something you can take as a human being not only as a football player. I learned a lot more from him than just football.”
    On the field, Morrow has more than held his own. Appearing in six out of the Hilltops seven regular season games so far in the 2018 campaign, Morrow has recorded 17 total tackles, two interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
    The graduate of Saskatoon’s Bishop James Mahoney High School Saints football team has returned 23 punts for the second most yards in the PFC at 267.
    Morrow, who stands 5-foot-10 and weighs 150 pounds, said Vause left pretty big shoes to fill, but that he has to play to his strengths.
    “I have to listen to my coaches and get help from my teammates to be the best player I can be,” said Morrow. “I don’t necessarily need to compare to him.
    “It was good to watch him last year and see what he did to be successful and what I can use from his game to put into my game. It is nice to see somebody like that.”
Brant Morrow, left, has two interceptions this season.
    Morrow has enjoyed the fact he has been able to make some big plays for the Hilltops defence.
    “I has been pretty cool,” said Morrow. “This defence has been really successful this year, and to be a part of something special like that is always pretty cool.
    “I’m looking forward to hopefully contributing more for the rest of the season.”
    Originally, Morrow wasn’t slated to be the Hilltops starting safety this season. That job was being targeted for talented third-year veteran Leif Larson.
    Larson injured his knee in a Sunday night workout before the season started and has yet to dress in a game for the Hilltops in 2018. Morrow was the next man up, and he quickly showed he was ready for the challenge.
    “All of sudden Brant (Morrow) had to step up and become the player that he became,” said Hilltops head coach Tom Sargeant. “We are real proud of him.
    “That is a credit to (defensive backs) coach (Brent) Turkington with his expertise putting in the time and energy to get that thing done right. Brant (Morrow) has applied a lot of the lessons. He has gotten better.
    “Now, we have a lot of confidence in him. Even his punt return game has certainly been a real nice treat for us to watch.”
    Sargeant had a feeling Morrow was going to adjust quickly to the starting assignment and make some plays.
    “He (Morrow) was a high end high school player, quality high school player,” said Sargeant. “He just has a great nose for the ball.
    “He has great instincts. It is just great to see him just trust and trust himself even more. As I said, I was able to watch him enough in high school to realize he has top flight playmaking ability, and he has proven that.”
    Coming out of high school, Morrow said he decided to join the Hilltops because two of his Saints coaches in Donnie Davidsen and Pat Schnitzler spoke highly of the team. Davidsen happens to be the Hilltops offensive line coach and Schnitzler’s son, Tom, wrapped up a stellar five-year career as a defensive end with the club last season.
Brant Morrow calls out adjustments on the Hilltops defence.
    The skilled safety found a high comfort level working with Turkington too.
    Morrow said joining the Hilltops was the best decision he had ever made in football.
    Things also became a little more special this season for Morrow when his 21-year-old brother, Kirk, joined the Hilltops as a defensive back. Kirk became part of the Hilltops after taking a break from the game that lasted about three seasons.
    “It has been pretty cool,” said Brant Morrow. “We haven’t played a sport together since we were in probably soccer when were about 10-years-old.
    “I think we have a pretty good bond. When we come to football, it is more serious about football now. It is awesome to have my brother here too.”
    With one game remaining to play in the regular season, Morrow said he is looking forward to participating in his second run through the CJFL playoffs.
    “For me, I was pretty excited last year, because I was still dressing for the games in playoffs,” said Morrow. “Now starting, I have a bigger role, so I have to prepare a little bit better and get a little more psyched up to make plays and contribute to the team.
    “In that aspect, it is going to be a little more exciting. We have mentally prepare as a team better and be more focused now.”
    Going into Sunday’s clash with the Rifles, the Hilltops already have first place locked up in the PFC with a 7-0 record and will have home-field advantage throughout the CJFL playoffs. The Rifles are 3-4 and are locked into finishing fourth in the PFC.
    That means the two sides will play each other in back-to-back weeks, because they are slated to face each other in a PFC semifinal matchup with a date and start time still to be announced.
    The Edmonton Huskies (5-2) can lock up second place in the PFC if they defeat the Edmonton Wildcats (2-5) on Sunday in Edmonton. If the Huskies lose, the Regina Thunder (4-3) would claim second place if they down the Colts (0-7) in Calgary on Sunday.
    The Wildcats and Colts have been eliminated from playoff contention locked into respective fifth and sixth place finishes in the PFC.
Brant Morrow (#22) celebrates a big play with David Solie (#2).
    Sargeant said his side plans to avoid overthinking things in their final regular season game.
    “We’re just going to come out and be who we are,” said Sargeant. “We’re just going to have a solid game plan, nothing fancy, and we’re just going to try continue to build on what we’re done for the first seven games.
    “There is a room for growth that we want to see. We’re going to continue to coach the way we coach and expect our players to play the way we play. We’re at home.
    “We always like to defend home turf, and we don’t want anyone coming in here and feeling comfortable. We’re going to come out and be physical and let them know Saskatoon is a place you don’t want to come play.”
    NOTE – The Hilltops will play tribute to late legendary team executive Don McDonald during halftime of Sunday’s game. McDonald, who is a member of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame as a builder, passed away at age 86 on Sept. 21.

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Monday, 8 October 2018

Bears’ Soyko delivers masterful performance off the ice

Abby Soyko is proving to be a high quality captain for the Bears.
    Sometimes you get a better story when life throws in its curveballs.
    On Saturday, I decided to travel from Saskatoon to Battleford for that night’s Saskatchewan Female Midget AAA Hockey League regular season clash between the host Battlefords Sharks and the visiting Prince Albert Northern Bears. Abby Soyko needed to collect just one point that night to become the all-time leading regular season scorer in the history of the Bears program.
    Since I have been really focused on covering the Saskatoon Hilltops and their quest to win a fifth straight Canadian Junior Football League title, I had been looking for an opportunity to get out to see the Bears and their game with the Sharks last Saturday at the Battleford Arena provided that chance.
    I figured the night would be simple. Soyko would likely get her point and the Bears would win to create a great early season SFMAAAHL story. With the following the Bears have, I knew their supporters would likely appreciate my effort as it was highly likely that no one else in media would be out covering that game.
    I ended up getting a lot more than I bargained for that night.
    The Sharks, who have regularly struggled in the SFMAAAHL, came out flying and took a 2-0 lead into the third period. They looked really good. Having covered the circuit since 2014, that was the best I had ever seen the Sharks play.
    The Bears battled back and ultimately won the game 3-2 in double overtime. Soyko did score the Bears first goal, but it was credited to Bears defender Tobi Fontaine.
    Working on the power-play in overtime, Soyko’s hard midrange shot was tipped home by linemate Kate Ball to win the game. Ball was correctly given credit for the goal, but the assist was given to Lauren Willoughby, who wasn’t on the ice.
    I was shooting pictures of the game, and especially for the overtime goal, the still photos on my camera did not match what was said over the public address system.
    I actually had a bit of panic thinking, “Oh my God. What am I going to do now?”
    I basically had a story that was there and not there all at the same time.
    Adding to the craziness was the fact Sharks veteran 17-year-old defender Keera Tiringer left the contest on a stretcher due to being on the receiving end of a hit from Bears forward Jasper Desmarais, when the Sharks led 2-1 in the third. Tiringer had played an outstanding game to that point, and the crowd at the Battleford Arena was hush silent as the medical staff attended to her on the ice.
Abby Soyko (#19) became the Bears all-time leader in regular season points.
    Both teams were sent to their respective dressing rooms until Tiringer was taken off the ice. I found out after the game Desmarais was pretty emotionally distraught, when she realized how bad Tiringer was hurt.
    Desmarais was given a major for boarding and a game misconduct for the hit.
    That marked the first time I saw a player leave an SFMAAAHL game on a stretcher.
    I decided to stick with making my story revolve around Soyko. When I went to see Bears head coach Jeff Willoughby after the game, we had a quick chat before I did an actual interview. The chat involved me figuring out if it was possible to review the scoring plays on the Bears first and third goals or if there was a way to fix the points.
    Willoughby was outstanding through everything right down to the point where he also talked about Tiringer and hoped that she would be alright.
    After that, I talked to Soyko. Before I actually did an interview, we had a chat, because I wanted to ensure I passed on the information about what I knew about her possibly getting a point out of that game.
    What I found out between the two chats is someone on the ice has inform the officials a mistake was made before intermission comes around to get the official scoring on a play changed.
    Soyko and I figured the scoring plays from Saturday night likely wouldn’t be changed. Soyko said she didn’t hear the announcement of the Bears first goal, but did hear the announcement of the overtime winner. She said she told the referee that she was the one that took the shot that Ball tipped home, but wasn’t planning to make much of a fuss due to the fact it was a long night.
    From there, I did the interview, and Soyko really blew me away there. When she said she wasn’t concerned at all about how the points were given and getting the win was the most important thing, you could tell by her body language and the tone of her voice she was genuine about that. I think I was stunned at that moment.
    As the interview went on, it was pretty clear she didn’t want anyone to get thrown under the bus be it officials or scorekeepers because everyone was human and makes mistakes. Soyko said she had lots of time to get her record breaking point.
Abby Soyko, left, drives a shot on goal for the Bears.
    That was great to hear. Looking back on the time I’ve covered the SFMAAAHL, it is amazing how much the officials and scorekeepers get things right without the aid of being able to roll back video to correct a scoring play. It not the norm for officials to make errors on scoring plays.
    Soyko gave a tonne of credit for how well the Sharks played, and said her side didn’t have the right mindset thinking they were going to get an easy win. Soyko, who stands 5-foot-5, said that was something her side had to correct.
    When we were talking, my mind couldn’t believe I was talking to someone aged 16 who will turn 17-years-old by the end of the month.
    I know in some circles there is a feeling that the SFMAAAHL is a league where you aren’t supposed to conduct those types of interviews that could be awkward or tough. There is a feeling the players should be treated like they were much younger at like age eight.
    During that moment, I learned more about Soyko than I did watching her play on the ice over a number of years. It is easy to guide the ship when the sun is out, the wind is steady and you can bask in the sun. Real character comes out when things aren’t straightforward, and they might even be a little rough as adversity hits.
    Soyko was outstanding in handling that tough moment. She definitely handled that better than a number of current NHLers would, if they were placed in the same spot.
    Along with the fact her outstanding character showed through, you could tell she received great guidance from Willoughby and his coaching staff. Soyko is now in her fifth full season with the Bears having spent two seasons with the club as an underage player.
    As fate would have it, the scoring play was changed for the Bears overtime goal after they left the rink, where Soyko was correctly credited with an assist and Lauren Willoughby, who is Jeff’s youngest daughter, didn’t get a point on the play.
    I suspect the on-ice officials did hear Soyko and likely made the change after filling out a referee’s report regarding the major penalty that was accessed to Desmarais. So Soyko did end up with her 102nd career regular season point to become the Bears all-time regular season scoring leader.
    Kelly Regnier held the old mark recording 50 goals and 51 assists for 101 points in 83 career regular season games played from 2010 to 2013.
    Looking back on the post I wrote from that night, I saw a piece that coaches from any sport could use as a teaching point for their players. The piece could definitely be used as a teaching point for team captains about what the expectations are supposed to be of them. I can think of a couple of coaches at levels of hockey above the SFMAAAHL that might do just that.
    On Sunday at the Battleford Arena, the two sides played another great contest, which the Bears won 3-1 to improve to 4-0, while the Sharks fell to 0-1-1.
Captain Abby Soyko and the Bears celebrate an OT win on Saturday.
    Tori MacDonald, Paige Dawson and Miranda Heidt netted singles for the Bears, while rookie Scout Anderson turned away 26 shots to pick up the win in goal.
    Sydney Rowley replied for the Sharks, while Haylie Biever turned away 37 shots to take the setback in goal.
    Soyko picked up an assist in that win as well. In 112 career SFMAAAHL regular season games, Soyko now has 53 goals and 50 assists for 103 points.
    Before the game, the Sharks announced that Tiringer had been released from hospital and was resting back at home, so that was great news.
    The Bears are now off until Oct. 27, when they travel to Regina to take on the Rebels.
    As the season goes on, Soyko will continue to climb the SFMAAAHL’s career regular season scoring list. She is currently ranked 18th on that list.
    Her MVP performance off the ice on Saturday night showed there is much more to her than what happens on the ice, and that should never be forgotten.

Soyko takes Bears scoring record in stride

    After I found out Soyko did indeed get credit for an assist on the Bears overtime goal on Saturday night to become the team’s all-time career leader in regular season points, I send her an email asking what it was like to have that accomplishment in her SFMAAAHL career.
    She took that accomplishment in fine fashion.
    “Honestly, it’s something I never thought was going to happen,” said Soyko. “I’m thankful for my coaches and teammates that have helped me achieve this goal.”

Merlis Belsher Place opens to rave reviews

    Merlis Belsher Place, which is the new twin pad hockey facility on the University of Saskatchewan campus, has received stellar reviews over the social media and regular media lines since it opened.
    Both University of Saskatchewan Huskies hockey teams have moved into their new home leaving the ancient Rutherford Rink behind. The Huskies women’s team was the first to hit the ice for regular season games this past weekend.
    Leading up to the Friday’s regular season opener against the University of Alberta Pandas, the Huskies put out an all-out advertising blitz for the game. Going around Saskatoon, I ran into a few people that don’t follow hockey that knew about the weekend games for the Huskies women’s team.
    Late in the first period of Friday night’s game, Huskies veteran fourth-year defender Leah Bohlken became the first player to score a goal in the history of the new rink, when she blew a shot past Pandas netminder Dayna Owen on a two-on-one short-handed break.
    That was the only tally of the night as the Huskies came away with a 1-0 victory.
    Star netminder Jessica Vance turned away 24 shots to record the first shutout in the history of the new rink and the 10th shutout of her career.
    Owen stopped 23 shots for the Pandas.
    A total of 1,064 spectators took in that first game marking a new single game attendance record for the Huskies women’s team. The largest crowd that ever came out to see the Huskies women’s team play at Rutherford was 791 back on March 1, 2014, when the Huskies dropped Game 2 of the Canada West Championship series 2-1 to the University of Regina Cougars in quadruple overtime.
    The final configuration for Rutherford only allowed for 845 tickets to be sold for hockey games, while Merlis Belsher Place is operating with about 2,500 seats. When all the seats for the main rink are installed, Merlis Belsher Place will seat 3,437 spectators.
    On Saturday night, Bohlken gave the Huskies a 1-0 lead early in the second period. The Pandas pulled out a 2-1 victory in that contest with Kennedy Ganser and Autumn MacDougall netting singles after Bohlken’s tally in the second frame.
    Vance made 32 saves to take the setback in goal for the Huskies (1-1). Kirsten Chamberlin turned away 25 shots to pick up the win in goal for the Pandas (1-1).
    A total of 815 spectators came out for Saturday’s contest.
    The attendance figures for the first two nights were definitely very encouraging. Hopefully, those in attendance like what they saw and keep returning.
    I did run into a lot of people in Saskatoon over the years, who said they would go see the Huskies hockey teams play when they left Rutherford for a new rink. That seemed to play out true on the opening weekend.
    The Huskies men’s team receive their first game action in Merlis Belsher Place this coming Friday, when they host the University of Calgary Dinos at 7 p.m. The Huskies and Dinos both sport 1-1 regular season records in the early part of the campaign.
    The Huskies women’s team travels to Calgary this coming Friday to take on the University of Calgary Dinos (0-2).

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Sunday, 7 October 2018

The Hilltops most dynamic player

Ewanchyna has delivered big plays since rookie year

Josh Ewanchyna has been a play maker for the Hilltops since day one.
    During a big championship game moment as a rookie, Josh Ewanchyna gained a new appreciation for what it was like to be part of the Saskatoon Hilltops family.
    Back on Nov. 12, 2016, the Hilltops were trying to win their 19th Canadian Junior Football League title and third Canadian Bowl league championship game in a row. The Canadian Bowl was being played at Westhills Stadium in Langford, B.C., and the visiting Hilltops found themselves down 19-16 to the host Westshore Rebels with just under five minutes expired in the third quarter.
    Rebels quarterback Ashton Mackinnon has just scored a major on a one-yard sneak to give his side a three-point lead.
    At that moment, Ewanchyna stepped up to the forefront as the Hilltops X-factor. He took the kickoff following Mackinnon’s major score back 105 yards for a Hilltops touchdown to put Saskatoon up 23-19. The Hilltops proceeded to expand their edge to 37-19 and ultimately claimed the contest 37-25.
    Ewanchyna had a rushing touchdown in the first half of that contest, but the second half kickoff return touchdown was the highlight of his rookie year.
    “Having been my first year and to have such a big impact on a game like that, I wasn’t happy (just) for myself,” said Ewanchyna, who stands 5-foot-10 and weighs 195 pounds. “I was happy for everyone that was happy for me and just having all that joy and people just like appreciating that.
    “It gave me that feeling that it is not just about me making big plays. It is about playing for the team and playing for everyone around you especially the fifth years when you are here.”
    Ewanchyna continued to be an X-factor as a sophomore for the Hilltops last season playing behind Logan Fischer and Adam Machart at the running back position.
Josh Ewanchyna, right, breaks away from a Regina Thunder tackler.
    Following the Hilltops fourth straight Canadian Bowl victory in 2017, Fischer, who was the team’s established star at running back, graduated from the club having exhausted his CJFL eligibility. Machart moved on to play for the University of Saskatchewan Huskies in the U Sports ranks.
    Now in his third CJFL season, Ewanchyna has risen to a star role at the running back position. The 20-year-old has won a pair of offensive player-of-the-week awards for the Prairie Football Conference this season.
    On Sunday at Clarke Stadium in Edmonton, the graduate of Saskatoon’s Holy Cross High School carried the ball 22 times for 187 yards and scored three touchdowns as the Hilltops blanked the host Wildcats 53-0 in a CJFL regular season clash.
    On the campaign, Ewanchyna has carried the ball 107 times for 830 yards and scored 10 touchdown playing six out of the Hilltops seven regular season games to date having missed the first contest with a minor injury. He strives to emulate what Fischer and Machart did with club and said it was eye-opening learning from those two players.
    “I wanted to kind of sit back and you know just like watch those guys, see what they did at practice, see what they did for film (and) how their body language was,” said Ewanchyna. “You want to be like those guys.
    “You kind of realize those guys weren’t playing for themselves. They were playing for the team, the Hilltops, the ‘H’ on their helmets.
    “I just want to do the same and kind of follow in the footsteps as those guys did. I don’t know if I will ever get to those high standards, but it is definitely worth a try.”
Josh Ewanchyna has piled up the rushing yards for the Hilltops this season.
    Hilltops head coach Tom Sargeant said Ewanchyna has been an impact player with the Hilltops since arriving with the team. The sideline boss was proud of how his talented tailback handled playing behind Fischer and Machart in 2016 and 2017.
    Sargeant said Ewanchyna is able to be a dynamic player on the field due to a number of characteristics.
    “Number one, he is the second fastest player on our team, and he is just so physical,” said Sargeant. “He is tough.
    “He bounces off blocks. He knows how to put his body in good positions. He has great balance and really good vision.
    “He is just getting better and better at understanding what he needs to do and jelling with that offensive line. It is always a mechanism that needs to work with each other. He is doing a real good job of blending into that.”
    With the Hilltops having one regular season game remaining before they embark on the post-season, Sargeant expects Ewanchyna to play a sizable role in the team’s quest to win a fifth straight CJFL championship.
    “The Hilltops love to run the ball in the playoffs, so we’re going to pound that rock,” said Sargeant. “Josh is a big part of that.
    “He is a natural playmaker. We’re going to need him to stay healthy and make those type of plays.
    “If he does that, that puts us in great spots to be the team that we want and expect ourselves to be in this championship run for 2018.”
    While Ewanchyna has a big family with the players and staff on the Hilltops, he has relished the chance to play alongside a blood family member in older brother and 22-year-old fifth-year receiver Adam. Adam opened the scoring of Sunday’s game hauling in an eight-yard touchdown pass early in the first quarter.
    Josh said he always looked up to Adam as they grew up together and followed Adam up through football.
Josh Ewanchyna can get downfield with great speed.
    When Adam was a Grade 12 star with Holy Cross’s football team, Josh was the Grade 10 youngster that wanted to be in Adam’s position.
    With the Hilltops, Josh became the bigger name player, but he found it huge to have Adam in the dressing room to help with the various ups and downs of a season.
    “I’ve been real close to my brother kind of coming up playing Hilltops,” said Josh Ewanchyna. “He is going out on his final one, so it is a little bit bittersweet this year playing my last year with him seeing him there in the locker room.
    “I’m going to have to get used to that next year not seeing him. He was always the one kind of pushing me to do better things with where I am today. It is awesome.”
    Going forward, Josh Ewanchyna said the Hilltops can’t overlook any opponent, especially with single-elimination playoff games sitting around the corner. While there are parts of the season that can be a grind, Ewanchyna admits the campaign does seem to go by too quickly, so it is important to enjoy the moment.
    “Four months out of the year, you have to kind of commit your life to it,” said Ewanchyna. “Next thing you know, you’re almost done it.
    “Every week, every game, every time you have practice, instead of sitting there kind of pouting about being there, you just have to enjoy the little things and be outside with your friends. You know happy you’re there. When you are on the field, you just have to work.
    “It is crazy how fast time flies. You don’t really realize it until it is gone. Definitely enjoying those wins and those times after with the guys celebrating is definitely what you have to take into account and enjoy the most.”
    With Sunday’s win in the books, the Hilltops improve to 7-0 on the season, extend their overall winning streak to 15 games including the regular season and playoffs and extend their road winning streak to 23 contests including the regular season and post-season.
    The Wildcats fell to 2-5 and were eliminated from CJFL playoff contention.
Josh Ewanchyna will see more touches as Hilltops head to the playoffs.
    In Sunday’s runaway win, Hilltops star quarterback Jordan Walls completed 14-of-26 passes for 220 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Fifth-year star receiver Jason Price hauled in four passes for 103 yards and scored one touchdown.
    David Solie booted field goals from 31, 23 and 10 yards out for the Toppers.
    Backup quarterback Tyler Hermann hit receiver John Brown for a touchdown pass, and the Hilltops forced the Wildcats to concede a safety in the contest.
    Saskatoon led 10-0 after the first quarter and 29-0 at halftime.
    Defensive end Connor Delahey had seven total tackles for the Hilltops, while rookie safety Evan Mantyka had a pair of interceptions.
    The Hilltops, who have first place in the PFC locked up, close the regular season this coming Sunday hosting the Winnipeg Rifles (3-4) at 1 p.m. at Saskatoon Minor Football Field. The Rifles are locked into finishing fourth in the PFC, which means the two sides will meet in a PFC semifinal contest in the CJFL playoffs.

Back in the Express with Hilltops assistant coaches

Donnie Davidsen, left, is one of many key assistant coaches for the Hilltops.
    I was back in the pages of the Saskatoon Express this week with the cover story focused on the Saskatoon Hilltops assistant coaches.
    The piece focuses on how offensive line coach Donnie Davidsen became involved with the team and his journey with the club that is now into its 13th season. Davidsen spent a number of years in Saskatoon’s high school ranks before joining the Hilltops.
    Hilltops head coach Tom Sargeant goes into detail about how important the assistant coaches are to the team.
    The club’s assistant coaches this season include defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Jeff Yausie, quarterbacks coach Shane Reider, defensive backs coach Brent Turkington, defensive line coach Dave Fisher, running backs coach Andre Lalonde and receivers coach Barclay Schlosser.
    Ben Hodson was added as another offensive line coach and Evan Turkington was added as another receivers coach as the season went on. They ultimately returned for a second campaign in those roles.
    The piece on the Hilltops assistant coaches can be found by clicking here.

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