Saturday, 7 September 2019

Hilltops get some luck, rally past Thunder in epic clash

Ben Abrook dives home for the Hilltops winning touchdown.
    Ben Abrook is enjoying reruns so far in the 2019 Canadian Junior Football campaign.
    On Saturday night before 1,981 spectators at Saskatoon Minor Football Field, the third-year power running back played hero for the five time defending CJFL champion Saskatoon Hilltops in a 28-21 victory over the Regina Thunder in a hard-fought regular season tilt.
    With the Thunder holding a 21-20 lead, Abrook dived over top of a pile on a one-yard touchdown plunge with 33.4 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter to give the Hilltops the winning points in the contest. The Hilltops followed Abrook’s touchdown with a two-point convert on a five-yard pass completion from quarterback Tyler Hermann to backup running back Carter McLean.
    In the Hilltops previous outing last Sunday at Clarke Park in Edmonton, Alta., Abrook scoring the winning touchdown with 1:47 remaining in the fourth quarter to give the Hilltops a 24-22 comeback victory over the Huskies.
The Hilltops celebrate Ben Abrook’s game winning touchdown.
    The Hilltops trailed 19-7 at halftime in that contest.
    Abrook has relished the chance to come through in big moments.
    “I personally enjoy being on the field more, because you can kind of make what is going to happen,” said Abrook. “You can make the moment.
    “I enjoy that, and it is just good to see our ‘D’ close it out and everything. It is a good ending.”
    Abrook’s winning score almost didn’t come to pass in the victory over the Thunder.
    On the play before Abrook’s game-deciding major, Hilltops backup quarterback Doug Fleming, who handles short-yardage situations, fumbled the ball away, and the Thunder recovered the loose ball.
Eric Maximuik kicks a 45-yard field goal for the Thunder.
    The fumble recovery was nullified due to an offside penalty that was assessed to the Regina side.
    Both teams had used all their timeouts at that point, and the Thunder would have likely run out the game clock to pick up the victory had the fumble recovery stood up.
    “They got it absolutely,” said Hilltops head coach Tom Sargeant. “We didn’t deserve that (break with the offside), but at the end of the day, I guess we’ll take it.
    “We will learn from it. That was bad coaching. A quarterback that didn’t play much, I put him in thinking because he did it early in the game I thought I put him in a good spot.
QB Tyler Hermann fires a key final drive pass for the Hilltops.
    “Maybe the moment was too big at the time for Doug (Fleming). We’ll see. Doug is a character kid, he is a quality kid, he is going to be a great player at some point, but we can’t have those mishaps in those types of situations.”
    Sargeant said he made the decision to put Fleming in the game on the play where the fumble happened that was negated by the offside call to the Thunder.
    “Once again, that is on me,” said Sargeant. “I have to coach it better.”
    The win allowed the Hilltops to improve to 4-0 and run their overall winning streak to 23 games including action in the regular season and playoffs. The Thunder fell to 2-2 with the setback, and both of their losses came to the Hilltops.
    The Hilltops claimed the Shrine Bowl for sweeping the season series with the Thunder 2-0, and have claimed that honour for five straight years.
Connor Graham, middle, makes a tough catch on the Hilltops final drive.
    For a moment, it looked like the Thunder were going to escape Saturday’s game pulling out a win with last minute heroics. With 1:24 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Hilltops holding a 20-18 lead, veteran Thunder kicker Eric Maximuik drilled a 45-yard field goal to put the visitors up 21-20.
    Following the Thunder field goal, Matt Turple returned the ensuing kickoff 36 yards for the Hilltops to allow them to start their offensive series at their own 45 yard-line. The Hilltops proceeded to drive 65 yards for the winning touchdown.
Ben Abrook ran for 128 yards and scored two TDs.
    One of the key plays on the series was Hermann hitting fifth-year receiver Connor Graham for a 23-yard gain that put the Hilltops on the Thunder one yard-line. That set the stage for the fumble that was negated by a penalty and Abrook’s winning score.
    “At the end, players make the plays,” said Sargeant. “Connor Graham made a big catch.
    “I thought Matt Turple’s kick return sort of energized our football team and sort of led us to a good touchdown winning drive. Lots of positives, but for me, there are still more negatives than positives today. Unfortunately, the way I coach that is who I am and is where I am at.”
    The Thunder took a 1-0 lead in Saturday’s game, when Maximuik drilled the opening kickoff 70 yards into the Saskatoon end zone, where it was downed for a rouge.
    Abrook scored his first of two touchdowns on the night at the 2:13 mark of the first quarter to give the Hilltops a 7-1 advantage.
    Maximum hit an 18-yard field goal to cut the Hilltops edge to 7-4 just over six minutes after Abrook’s first score.
QB Blake Scherle had 333 yards passing for the Thunder.
    On the final play of the opening quarter, McLean ran a touchdown in from four yards out to give the Hilltops a 14-4 lead.
    Just past the midway point of the second quarter, Hilltops kicker Rylan Kleiter hit a 22-yard field goal to push the host side’s lead out to 17-4.
    Momentum changed late in the second quarter when Thunder defensive back Brandyn Martin intercepted Hermann. The Thunder turned that interception into a mid-length touchdown drive that was kept alive by a Hilltops unnecessary roughness penalty and the visitors executing a fake field goal to get a first down.
    The drive was capped when Thunder quarterback Blake Scherle hit receiver Ethan Douglas for a five-yard touchdown pass that trimmed the Hilltops lead to 17-11 with 2:55 remaining before halftime.
Ethan Douglas hauls in a five-yard touchdown reception for the Thunder.
    The Thunder had the only score in the third quarter, when backup running back Maxwell Foerster dove in from a yard out to put the visitors up 18-17 with 1:26 remaining in the frame.
    Kleiter hit a 22-yard field goal with 5:48 remaining in the fourth quarter to put the Hilltops back on top 20-18. Saskatoon appeared to ice the game after forcing a turnover on downs when star defensive tackle Jesse McNabb stopped Foerster on a third-and-one game.
    The Hilltops took over the ball at Regina’s 43 yard-line. On the ensuing series, Abrook was stopped on a third-and-one gamble allowing the Thunder to take over the ball at their own 34 yard-line.
    Regina proceeded to drive downfield to set up Maximuik’s long field goal and the rest of the dramatics at the end of the contest that saw the Hilltops drive for the winning touchdown.
Hilltops DT Jesse McNabb, middle, makes a stop on a third down gamble.
    “It was a big game,” said McNabb, who is in his fifth and final season with the Hilltops. “It is always a big game, when we play Regina.
    “They always play their best game against us, so it is a big one to come out with the win.”
    Abrook piled up 128 yards on 30 carries to go with his two touchdowns. Hermann finished the contest completing 21-of-31 passes for 245 yards with one interception.
    Fifth-year linebacker Riley Keating topped the Hilltops with seven total tackles, while second-year linebacker Konner Johnson had a fumble recovery.
    Scherle completed 25-of-44 passes for 333 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions for the Thunder. Veteran receiver Isaac Foord caught nine passes for 155 yards for the Thunder.
Hilltops receiver Keegan Dicks, right, looks to get past a Thunder DB.
    Martin had six-and-a-half total tackles and pass knockdown to go with his interception.
    Abrook was happy the Hilltops pulled out the win, and he believes the fact his side took two straight close games will help his squad later on in the season.
    “I think it definitely can be good for us just to give us some composure and everything going into playoffs, because we will have to play those teams again most likely,” said Abrook. “I think it is going to be good in the long haul.
    “We definitely need to get better and keep going, and yeah, it should be good.”
    Both the Thunder and Hilltops embark on bye weeks before returning to action on Sunday, Sept. 22. 
Logan Ferland (#60) sets to make a block for the Thunder.
    The Thunder will host the Huskies at 1 p.m. at Mosaic Stadium in Regina, and the Hilltops host the Calgary Colts at 1 p.m. at SMF field.
    The Hilltops head into their final four regular season games winning the season series and holding the standings tiebreaker against both the Thunder and Huskies. The Thunder and Huskies are expected to be the Hilltops two main competitors in the race for first place in the Prairie Football Conference.
    “We’re pretty much controlling our destiny,” said Sargeant. “We’re good at doing that, and we are used to doing that.
    “This is nothing new, but the product on the field is not what I am happy with. We had a great week at practice. I should have seen just more things I saw in practice that I didn’t see on game day, but game day is different.
The Hilltops celebrate their victory on Saturday night.
    “We have to be right and get our players more understood in tight within the game plan, so that they execute it better. It just wasn’t good enough today.”

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