|Cole Benkic was the CJFL's top defensive player in 2015.|
When you’re the venerable Saskatoon Hilltops, a mass exodus of players equals opportunity.
The Toppers lost 16 players due to graduation from the Canadian Junior Football League championship squad from a season ago. A handful of others moved on to other teams namely in the Canadian Interuniversity Sport ranks.
As head coach Tom Sargeant and the rest of his staff look at their newcomers and returning players, they have to feel a little excitement, because you wonder who in that group will be “the guy.” They have to know someone new or a returning backup is going to be “the guy,” and that person might not necessarily be someone you expect.
Most of the Hilltops departing players were starters, but for a club that has won 18 national championships, rebuilding and reloading usually isn’t a very long process. The Toppers will be doing their best to be the first team to win six CJFL championships in seven years.
During the regular season, the Hilltops are always pretty good at getting all their players on the field in games where they are running away on the scoreboard. Thanks to those moves, backups are usually ready to jump into a starting role, when a starter graduates. As a result, you could have a number of players turn out to be “the guy.”
The Hilltops are always strong when it comes to recruiting, so there is always the possibility a rookie will step in right away and make an impact.
|Quarterback Jared Andreychuk threads a pass down field for the Hilltops.|
Even with that in mind, the cupboard isn’t bare. Fifth year star quarterback Jared Andreychuk is back to lead the offence, and linebacker Cole Benkic, who was last year’s CJFL defensive player of the year, is back for his final season to guide the defence. Both will provide a steady influence on their respective units.
Beast-type running back Logan Fischer returns for his fourth season, and fifth-year veteran receiver Tyson Sawatzky will be a key downfield target.
On the defensive line, Blake Hermann and Tom Schnitzler are both back from a unit that was outstanding a season ago. They will likely once again cause grief for the quarterbacks of opposing teams.
Besides containing Benkic, the Hilltops return some other strong linebackers in Cole’s brother, Adam Benkic, and Bobby Ehman. The secondary will be steadied by the leadership of James Vause, who will likely start full time at safety.
The Hilltops will have to find a kicker due to losing Brett Thorarinsson to graduation, and he handled all those duties last season.
|Running back Logan Fischer powers his way up field for the Hilltops.|
As the season moves on, the Hilltops will improve due to having one of the best coaching staffs you will find on any team. Sargeant has lots of support behind him in the likes of defensive coordinator Jeff Yausie, offensive coordinator Sheldon Ball and special teams coordinator Matt Yausie.
The Hilltops get things going for their 70th season as their main training camp opens on Monday at 1 p.m. at Ron Atchison Field. Their alumni game is set for Thursday at 7 p.m. at Saskatoon Minor Football Field, and they open the regular season on Aug. 14 at 1 p.m. at Saskatoon Minor Football Field against the Winnipeg Rifles.
It is always fun watching the Hilltops play on a Sunday afternoon at SMF Field during summer and fall, and it be cool to see if they can add another chapter to their storied history.
Will Rams versus Huskies draw at new Mosaic?
|QB Noah Picton (#4) and the Rams will open new Mosaic Stadium.|
The University of Regina Rams were successful in obtaining the right to host the first game at the new Mosaic Stadium in Regina, but you have to wonder if it will be the draw the Saskatchewan football community hopes it will be.
On Oct. 1, the Rams host the University of Saskatchewan Huskies at 2 p.m. in the inaugural game at the new Mosaic Stadium called the SaskTel Fall Classic. Ticket sales for the contest will be limited to 16,500, but you have to wonder if that game will reach that lofty attendance total.
Since the Rams joined the Canadian Interuniversity Sport ranks in 1999, they along with the Huskies have had various promotions to try and spike attendance for one game to the 10,000 mark, but have come up unsuccessful. Since 1999, the biggest crowd for a university level football game in Saskatchewan has been hosted by the Huskies, who crammed 12,567 spectators to the 2006 Vanier Cup at Griffiths Stadium. The host Huskies fell in that national final to the Universite Laval Rouge et Or 13-8.
Going into the 2016 campaign, the biggest selling point of the Oct. 1 match between the Huskies and Rams is the fact they will be playing in Regina’s new stadium, which will be best known as the home of the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders.
The Rams are coming off a dismal and from accounts in Regina a dysfunctional 2015 season, where they were 0-8. Their attendance for their final two regular season home games at the old Mosaic Stadium were far from spectacular.
On Oct. 17, 2015, the Rams drew 1,200 to their 49-46 loss to the University of Manitoba Bisons. The Rams closed the 2015 campaign drawing 1,100 to a 38-37 home loss to the Huskies on Oct. 30.
Those figures are far from what the Rams drew during the days they had quarterback Darryl Leason, slotback Jason Clermont and running back Neal Hughes on their roster in 2000 when they appeared in the Vanier Cup and in 2001.
|Huskies RB Shane Buchanan hits a wall of Rams tacklers.|
The Huskies 2015 campaign fell short of pre-season expectations, and they almost missed the playoffs for the first time since 2000. Had the Huskies lost their Oct. 30, 2015 clash with the Rams, U of S would have missed the post-season. The Rams led that contest 34-11 late in the third quarter before the Huskies rallied for victory.
Huskies fans usually follow their team down from Saskatoon to Regina for games, but U of S saw its home attendance slip during a 3-5 regular season campaign.
In 2015, the Huskies season high in attendance came in a 33-18 victory over the Rams on a Sept. 18 clash at Griffiths Stadium with 6,476 spectators. The Huskies drew 4,254 spectators to a 44-15 loss on Oct. 16 to the University of Calgary Dinos and 3,179 fans to a 41-36 loss to the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds on Oct. 23.
There is also a sizable minority among the Huskies supporters who heap piles of criticism on the team for going 1-10 in their last 11 playoff games, which includes a current seven game post-season losing streak. The notion that those supporters might make it to Regina to see the Huskies play is questionable. In Saskatoon, the Huskies receive the same level of scrutiny as a WHL team.
Social media posts and press releases about the SaskTel Fall Classic keep saying tickets for the Oct. 1, 2016 clash between the Rams and Huskies are expected to go fast. That statement is highly doubtful.
Personally, I would love to see the Rams and Huskies draw over 30,000 to SaskTel Fall Classic, but that is likely not reality.
One thing that might boost attendance is making that clash between the Rams and Huskies a doubleheader with the CJFL teams from Regina and Saskatoon. The defending CJFL champion Saskatoon Hilltops are slated to be in Regina on Oct. 1 to take on the Thunder. That contest is set for 7 p.m. at old Mosaic Stadium, and obviously, starts after the Rams versus Huskies game is slated to finish.
It might be prudent to get the Hilltops versus Thunder game moved to new Mosaic Stadium for a doubleheader and market everything as a football day in Regina. The chances of approaching an attendance figure of 16,500 would increase greatly if one had the chance to see all four of Saskatchewan’s post-secondary teams at one time.
Back in the Express with Kiselyk
|Marci Kiselyk smiles after scoring a TD.|
I was back in the Saskatoon Express this week with a feature story on Marci Kiselyk, who a star receiver for the Saskatoon Valkyries women’s football team.
Kiselyk reflects on the Valkyries 2016 Western Women’s Canadian Football League championship campaign and the fact she has played for the Valkyries in all six seasons of their existence. She joined the Valkyries after playing five seasons with the University of Saskatchewan Huskies women’s basketball team.
The feature led into the fact that Kiselyk will suit up for Saskatchewan’s provincial team for the inaugural Senior Women’s National Championship that is being put on by Football Canada right now in Regina. Saskatchewan will face Quebec in the event’s championship game on Sunday at 4:30 p.m. at old Mosaic Stadium.
On Thursday, Saskatchewan blanked New Brunswick 58-0 in a semifinal match. Kiselyk caught nine passes for 171 yards and scores three touchdowns in the win.
My Saskatoon Express story on Kiselyk can be found right here.
Schlenker off to “The Show”
|Chris Schlenker will referee in the NHL.|
It is official, Chris Schlenker, who won the Allen Paradice Memorial Trophy this past season as the top official in the WHL, is heading to the NHL.
CTV Lethbridge senior reporter Kaella Carr traveled to Medicine Hat to interview Schlenker, who is a member of the Medicine Hat Police Service, and he confirmed the news he has signed on to work in the NHL. He will take a leave of absence from the Medicine Hat Police Service starting at the end of August.
Schlenker, who is from Medicine Hat, played in the WHL from 2001 to 2005 with the Regina Pats and Prince Albert Raiders. Carr worked for CTV Prince Albert, when Schlenker was a member of the Raiders.
Both Carr and Schlenker were highly respected by the residents of Prince Albert during their time in that northern Saskatchewan city. Carr’s story on Schlenker heading to the NHL was outstanding. It can be found right here.
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