Monday, 11 September 2017

Hilltops and Thunder show off CJFL at its best

Thunder RB Jonathan Thebaud (#30) and the Hilltops defence collide.
    On Saturday at Saskatoon Minor Football Field, the Saskatoon Hilltops and Regina Thunder put on a show that was made for TV.
    For anyone that has seen these two clubs go at it over the years, that observation shouldn’t come as a shock. When the Hilltops and Thunder meet, spectators get to see the Canadian Junior Football League at its best.
    In their latest clash, the Hilltops led the Thunder 20-6 at halftime only for the Thunder to rally and pull out a heart stopping 29-26 victory. It was a reversal of script from the six previous encounters between these two teams, where the Hilltops came up victorious on each occasion. Four of those Saskatoon victories came by four or fewer points.
    While Saturday’s result was a tough one for the Hilltops and their fans to stomach, the end result doesn’t take away from the fact they took part in an outstanding game, which helps sell the CJFL.
QB Jordan Walls (#19) was on fire for the Hilltops.
    In Canada’s media cut age, circuits like the CJFL always have to embrace opportunities when they can sell themselves.
    The same can be said for the four head-to-head games the Hilltops claimed by four or fewer points in their previous six clashes with the Thunder. In those contests, the Thunder and their fans came away disappointed, but the fact the Hilltops won doesn’t take away from the fact the two clubs played an outstanding game on each of those occasions.
    Looking back at Saturday’s encounter, both teams will lament the fact they didn’t score more points, when the opportunities presented themselves. When the coaching staffs on both sides review video from that game, they will see the missed opportunities.
Thunder QB Sawyer Buettner, left, evades the Hilltops’ rush.
    On the statistical front, two spots showed how outstanding the game was.
    First comes from quarterback play, and the star signal callers for both teams had strong nights. Hilltops starter Jordan Walls completed 27-of-41 passes for 351 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Thunder starter Sawyer Buettner proved to be a touch better on the night completing 33-of-40 passes for 374 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
    The second statistical area that shows how outstanding the game was came on the turnover front. The Hilltops manufactured two takeaways, while the Thunder had one. Both sides did a sound job of looking after the ball.
    Both sides had missed plays, but in the overall view of a game, those missed plays really only stood out due to how well the rest of the game was played.
    Saturday’s contest had all sorts of turning points that could have really swung the fortunes to one side or the other.
Receiver Ryan Turple escapes upfield for the Hilltops.
    In the first quarter, the Hilltops had two long drives that ended in short field goals and gave the host side a 6-0 lead. The Hilltops could have had a touchdown in the first of those two series had receiver Jason Price been able to hold on to a perfectly placed pass in the end zone.
    With the Hilltops up 20-6, the Thunder had two long drives early in the third quarter that resulted in no points being scored due to turnovers. The first was a costly fumble by running back Ethan Hautz right before the goal-line of the Saskatoon end zone, and the second was an interception by Hilltops defensive lineman Tom Schnitzler.
    Hilltops kicker James Vause was wide on a 29-yard field goal attempt early in the fourth quarter, and the Thunder ran the ball out of the end zone to prevent any points from being scored.
Receiver Isaac Foord jets downfield on a punt return for the Thunder.
    Still, the last three minutes turned out to be the huge climax. After the Thunder had taken a 21-20 lead, Walls found star receiver Sam Mike on a seven-yard touchdown pass to put the hosts up 26-21 with 2:47 to play. The Hilltops misfired on a pass for a two-point conversion.
    The Thunder proceeded to drive 80 yards in two-minute drill style that saw Buettner hit receiver Lee Brown from eight yards out for what turned out to be the game’s winning touchdown. Regina added a two-point conversion to lead 29-26.
    Still, 60 seconds remained on the clock and the Hilltops had both of their timeouts. That is like an eternity in the Canadian game.
    The Hilltops started on their own 30 yard line and drove to the Regina 20 yard line. The hosts had a first down situation with nine seconds to play and one timeout to use.
The Thunder and Hilltops get set in a short yardage situation.
    There was more than enough time to take a shot at the end zone before trying a potential game-tying field goal.
    Unfortunately for the Hilltops, the intermediate sideline throw that was intended for Mike was intercepted by Thunder defensive back Tyrel Latoski at his own five yard line. Saskatoon had run that exact play a few times in the game, and on this occasion, Latoski saw what was coming and he undercut Wall’s pass for the game-sealing turnover.
    If Saturday’s match was a CFL game involving the Saskatchewan Roughriders, there would have been all sorts of talking points.
The Thunder defence gets to Hilltops RB Joshua Ewanchyna.
    The fact the contest was an exciting CJFL game makes it a hidden gem.
    Will it mark a turning point for the rest of the season? Only time will tell.
    Going forward, the Hilltops and Thunder are currently tied with the Winnipeg Rifles for second in the Prairie Football Conference at 3-1. The Edmonton Huskies lead the way at 4-0.
    The Hilltops, who are the three-time defending CJFL champions, took the regular season series with the Thunder, who won the 2013 CJFL title, outscoring their provincial rivals 63-49 in two regular season meetings. Saskatoon took the first encounter 37-20 in Regina on Aug. 12.
    The CJFL was arguably the big winner with a showcase game. In Canada’s amateur sports scene, that is something that is always priceless.

Media watch an interesting game

Huskies head coach Scott Flory participates in a media scrum.
    With the start of the winter sports season, I have found that my head is on a swivel when head out to cover local sporting events.
    When I was in Regina back on May 14 covering the Seattle Thunderbirds winning the WHL title with a 4-3 overtime victory over the host Pats, I still have the air of finality imprinted on my mind from the media members in attendance while interacting in the media and scouts lounge an hour before that contest. Since the conclusion of that game, a number of my friends saw their time in the mainstream media and media overall come to an end.
    Due to the media cuts in Canada, I have found myself watching for differences on the media front compared to the previous campaign.
    On Friday night, the University of Saskatchewan Huskies football team hosted their home opener, and they romped over the University of Alberta Golden Bears 43-17 before 8,009 spectators in U Sports action.
    When I went on the sidelines to shoot pictures of that game, I felt like I was working a Saskatchewan Roughriders CFL game due to all the cameras that were circling the field. That caught me by surprise.
    It is also seemed like the majority of those cameras were shooting pictures or video for Huskie Athletics and the U of Saskatchewan. The one videographer I saw wore a jacket signalling he was part of a Huskies film crew.
    The Huskies also had an actual game program with a pair of stories, which was something you didn’t see a year ago.
    The cameras didn’t translate to interviews post game. Intent on writing a column, I didn’t do any post-game interviews. I did look in on the post-game scrums and saw three microphones from mainstream outlets and a Huskies staff filming video.
    For Saturday’s CJFL clash between the Hilltops and Thunder, I was one of only three people shooting photos for the entire game. I saw two other shooters arrive for part of the contest before leaving. When the game concluded, there were only four reporters, including myself, on the field doing interviews.
    The Hilltops also have different content in their game programs for each home contest this season.
    A year ago at both events, it seemed like there were more reporters at each game doing interviews. With that said, the media presence was there. It will be interesting to see what media personnel presence will be like when the Saskatoon Blades open their WHL regular season schedule.
    As for my own front, I will mirror what I wrote in a column back in May. My goal is to ensure that whatever I do cover it will be something I am passionate about.
    I find that when you do cover something you are not passionate about, the reader sees through it, and you do them a disservice.
    I just try to take things one day at a time and roll with the punches as they come.

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