Sunday, 22 August 2021

Fleming perseveres to score winning point for Hilltops

Saskatoon rallies for 18-17 victory in Edmonton

Doug Fleming sets to throw a pass at a Hilltops scrimmage.
When world events throw you a curveball, Doug Fleming believes you try to do the best you can with the cards that get dealt your way.

Fleming was looking forward to his third season in the CJFL in 2020 as he was slated to become the new starting quarterback for the storied Saskatoon Hilltops.

Unfortunately, the world came into the grips of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and the 2020 CJFL campaign was lost.

The Hilltops were cleared to hold practices for six weeks during September and October of 2020, and Fleming was happy to take that on field action given the circumstances.

“It was tough, but we were fortunate enough to at least practice together and get a few scrimmages in,” said Fleming, who stands 5-foot-11 and weighs 215 pounds. “It sucked not playing, but it was nice to be able to grow as a person and like be better mentally and be better physically for this season.”

Fleming’s third CJFL season did indeed get underway. On Sunday, he made his first career start at quarterback as the Hilltops battled the Huskies at the Jasper Place Bowl in Edmonton, Alta.

The start was a rough one. The Hilltops offence struggled in the first half and a late second quarter interception by Fleming saw the Huskies turn that turnover into a touchdown to go up 14-0 at halftime.

At the start of the second half, the Hilltops inserted Damon Dutton in at quarterback, who is also in his third full season with the team. Dutton led a second half comeback that saw the Hilltops get back on even terms at 17-17 with 5:27 remaining in the fourth quarter.

On the final play of the contest, the Hilltops had the ball on the Huskies nine yard-line. Fleming, who is also the Hilltops’ punter, came into the game and booted a walk-off rouge through the Edmonton end zone to give Saskatoon an 18-17 victory.

Damon Dutton throws a pass at a Hilltops scrimmage.
During the 2019 season, Fleming was being groomed to eventually take over as the Hilltops starting signal caller during his sophomore campaign with the team. Besides seeing action in lopsided wins, Fleming hit the field on goal-line and short-yardage situations along with some special offensive packages the team designed.

He completed 9-of-16 passes for 109 yards and one touchdown over the team’s eight regular season games. Fleming also ran the ball nine times for 68 yards and scored three touchdowns in those contests too.

The graduate of Saskatoon’s Bishop James Mahoney High School Saints football team said the 2019 CJFL championship season with the Hilltops was a campaign where he was doing a lot of learning and trying to get better.

“It wasn’t bad, but I definitely needed to improve on a bit of stuff,” said Fleming. “As the season went on, I missed a few easy throws.

“I really worked on trying to correct those mistakes for this year. It was fun to play. It was just nice to get off the bench a little.

“Even just running the ball, it was nice to be able to get out there and contribute.”

With Tyler Hermann playing out his final season of CJFL eligibility as the Hilltops starting quarterback in 2019, Hilltops legendary head coach Tom Sargeant, who is also the club’s offensive coordinator, wanted to get Fleming some meaningful reps that season.

“That was purposeful,” said Sargeant. “Number one, we knew eventually he was going to move into that starting role, so we wanted to give him some opportunities in real live situations to grow and learn what he needs to do and how he needs to do it to play at an elite level.

Doug Fleming saw frequent action in 2019.
“The good thing is Damon Dutton has had an outstanding camp as well. We’re very happy with our two quarterbacks.”

With the Hilltops down 14-0, they engineered their first score with Dutton at quarterback off a nine-yard touchdown run by running back Carter McLean at the 5:11 mark of the third quarter to trim the Huskies lead to 14-7.

Late in the third quarter, new Hilltops kicker Carter Sirman hit a field goal from 26 yards out to cut the Huskies advantage to 14-10.

Early in the fourth quarter, Laine Santos hit a 34-yard field goal for the Huskies to extend the host side’s advantage to 17-10.

With 5:27 remaining in the fourth quarter Dutton hit speedy receiver Ethan Godson with a 22-yard touchdown pass to even the score 17-17.

On the Hilltops final possession, Dutton hit sure handed receiver Dillan Heintz with a 38-yard pass to get the visitors down to the Huskies 18-yard line.

After one running play, Fleming was brought in try a punt single to win the game. He kicked the ball into the end zone, but the Huskies kicked the ball out of end zone.

Fleming fielded the ball for the Hilltops but was unable to kick the ball back into the end zone. The Huskies were called for a no yards penalty when Fleming caught the football giving the Hilltops one more play with no time remaining on the clock at the Huskies nine yard line.

Fleming hit the game-winning point from there.

The Huskies first half scores came courtesy a one-yard touchdown run by running back Alex Gayle early in the second quarter and quarterback Declan O’Flaherty hitting receiver Adner St Hilaire with a six-yard touchdown pass late in the second frame.

Sargeant said Fleming put in the time and deserved to be the Hilltops starting quarterback going into the opener. The sideline boss said the signal caller has continually improved and put in great work during the team’s six weeks of practice in the fall of 2020.

Doug Fleming, left, takes off on a memorable TD run in 2019.
“Dougie (Fleming) is growing, and he is getting better every day,” said Sargeant. “Coach (Shane) Reider and the offensive coaches are putting some things in to match his skill set.

“Every day he takes 100 steps. He is throwing the ball. He is getting more confidence with the game plan and our concepts. It is fun to watch.

“He is improving daily. He is a captain. Guys are rallying around him. They are following him. He just has positive energy. He is a fun kid to be around.”

Fleming carved out a special memory in the Hilltops second regular season game of the 2019 campaign, when they played the Thunder at Mosaic Stadium in Regina on Aug. 25.

On a third-and-two gamble late in the second quarter, Fleming ran off a 33-yard touchdown run on a draw play for the Hilltops second major of the contest. He also ran in the Hilltops final major from 11 yards out to round out a 34-16 victory.

The result allowed Sargeant to record his 200th career coaching victory.

Fleming was pumped to help Sargeant get that milestone win and remembers being pretty energized after the 33-yard touchdown run.

“I was pretty excited,” said Fleming. “(Then Hilltops kicker and receiver Rylan) Kleiter said I was shaking really bad trying to hold the extra point after.

“I was really amped up for it maybe a little too amped up.”

Doug Fleming (#4) celebrates a memorable TD run in 2019.
Fleming enjoyed being part of the Hilltops CJFL championship teams in 2018 and 2019. Saskatoon had won the last six straight CJFL titles before the 2020 campaign was wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the 2018 and 2019 campaigns, Fleming said the veterans left a big positive influence on the younger players.

“It was pretty cool,” said Fleming. “You get to learn a lot from those veteran guys.

“In 2018, we only had eight guys, but they were very well accomplished. In 2019, we had 15 guys who hadn’t played much, but you learn a lot about perseverance from those guys who stood on the bench for four years and waited their turn to play one year.

“It was good learning that from them too.”

As for the 2021 campaign, Fleming said he doesn’t want to look too far ahead. With the Hilltops having gone a lengthy stretch of not having a game due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Fleming wants to soak in the moments on the field as they come.

“We are taking it one week at a time and try and focus and win our game each week,” said Fleming. “We just go one week at a time.”

The Hilltops return to action this coming Sunday when they travel to Calgary to take on the Colts at Shouldice Park.

Doug Fleming, with ball, and the Hilltops next play in Calgary.
NOTES – Sunday’s victory marked the 30th straight game the Hilltops have won on the road including play in the CJFL regular season and post-season. The Hilltops last road setback came way back on August 17, 2014, when they fell 19-16 in overtime to the Thunder in Regina at Taylor Field.

Overall, the Hilltops have won their last 32 games in a row including action in the CJFL regular season and post-season. Their last loss was a 29-26 setback to the Regina Thunder on Sept. 9, 2017 against the Thunder at Saskatoon Minor Football Field.

It is believed both winning streaks are CJFL records. On paper, those streaks continue from the 2019 season with the 2020 CJFL campaign was lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

End Zone Dinner is a go for Hilltops

A Scott Schultz card.
The Saskatoon Hilltops traditional In The End Zone Dinner to raise funds for the team’s scholarship program is returning this season.

The club wasn’t able to hold the fundraising dinner a year ago due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This year’s dinner will be held on September 11 at the Gordie Howe Sports Centre building on the Gordie Howe Sports Complex grounds. The guest speakers will be a pair of former Saskatchewan Roughriders members in defensive lineman Scott Schultz and linebacker Mike McCullough.

Schultz, who is originally from Moose Jaw, Sask., played for the Roughriders from 2002 to 2009 and helped Saskatchewan win the 2007 Grey Cup as CFL champions.

McCullough suited up for the Roughriders for 11 seasons from 2003 to 2013 helping the team to Grey Cup wins in 2007 and 2013. The 2013 championship was won at the Roughriders historic home park in Taylor Field.

A Mike McCullough card.
Doors for the In The End Zone Dinner open at 4:15 p.m. with dinner to be served at 5:15 p.m. Following dinner, the Hilltops will hold their home opener at 7 p.m. hosting their provincial rivals the Regina Thunder at Saskatoon Minor Football Field, which is right next to the Gordie Howe Sports Centre on the Gordie Howe Sports Complex grounds.

Single tickets for the dinner are $100 or a table of eight can be bought for $725.

Tickets can be purchased online by clicking on a link right here.

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