Saturday, 18 September 2021

McLean carries on Hilltops’ great tailback tradition

Saskatoon drops 30-27 heartbreaker in Regina

Carter McLean has piled up the rushing yards for the Hilltops.
Saskatoon Hilltops running back Carter McLean learned to cash on opportunities in adversity.

After spending his first couple of seasons as the change-of-pace tailback, McLean was slated to step into the starter’s role for the 2020 campaign. Unfortunately, the 2020 CJFL campaign was cancelled due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic that gripped the world.

The Hilltops were able to practice for six weeks in September and October of 2020. McLean focused on making the best out of the repetitions he was given in those practices and believed it was great to get together with the rest of the team despite not having any games.

“It was tough obviously,” said McLean. “It was good to get out here for at least a couple of practices and hang out with the team and the boys and everything like that.

“It was good to reconnect with them for sure. I’m sure it bonded us more as a team. We’re closer more than ever.”

In 2021, the CJFL took flight again with regular season play, and McLean, who is a graduate of Saskatoon’s Evan Hardy Collegiate Souls football team, took on the starting running back role with the Hilltops.

On Saturday at Mosaic Stadium in Regina, McLean had an 18-yard touchdown run for the Hilltops in the first quarter. In what would be an all-time CJFL classic, the Thunder ultimately prevailed over their provincial rivals 30-27 in the regular season encounter.

With 74 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter and the Hilltops holding a 27-23 lead, backup Thunder quarterback Zenon Orobko, who was in for the injured Carter Shewchuk, hit receiver Isaiah Woodley on a 36-yard touchdown pass to put the Thunder up 29-27.

Carter McLean runs the ball for the Hilltops in 2019.
Thunder kicker Eric Maximuik hit the upright on the convert attempt but sailed the ensuing kickoff through the end zone for a single point to increase the Thunder advantage to 30-27.

The Hilltops offence proceeded to drive deep into Thunder territory, but Hilltops starting quarterback Damon Dutton was intercepted in the end zone by Justin Mckerracher with seven seconds remaining in the contest to preserve the three-point win for Regina.

The victory allowed the Thunder to remain undefeated improving to 4-0, while the Hilltops fell to 2-2. Regina swept the two-game season series with Saskatoon 2-0 for the first time since 2014.

Going into this weekend’s action, McLean sat second in the Prairie Football Conference in rushing piling up 343 yards on 66 carries and scoring two touchdowns. He also caught three passes for another 20 yards.

After there was no season in 2020, McLean enjoyed suiting up for regular season games again in 2021.

“It has been so much fun playing again,” said McLean, who stands 5-foot-9 and weighs 180 pounds. “It is great to be back out here again.

“It is a lot better than sitting at home for sure and just being quarantined at home. It is nice getting out here with the guys and just having some fun and playing the sport that we all love.”

Legendary Hilltops head coach Tom Sargeant is happy to have McLean back in the fold. During their first three games, the Hilltops offence had a lot of inconsistent play, but Sargeant said McLean’s efforts have been at a top level.

“Carter has been one of the players on offence that has played up to the standard and performed well,” said Sargeant. “We haven’t always blocked well and teams are cramming in and jumping in to stop the run.

“Carter has been a tough, durable and physical running back. He is only going to get better with more opportunity and more reps, so we’re certainly happy with him and pleased with how he is performing.”

Carter McLean has worked to get better at practice.
McLean’s first forays into the sport included playing at recess and the lunch hour in elementary school. He showed enough interest in the sport that his parents put him in flag football before signing him up for tackle football in Grade 5.

The standout runner credits his father, Darcy McLean, for being the biggest influence in helping him out in the sport.

“My dad (Darcy McLean) has been a huge inspiration for me, and he has also been a big support guy for sure,” said Carter McLean. “He is always pushing me to play my best and always be physical and always be active for sure.

“From a very young age, he has been like that, and I really appreciate that from him.”

Growing up playing the game, McLean enjoyed the friendships he made through the sport and how it felt like teammates became family members.

During his high school years, McLean got the feeling that playing football at the post-secondary level was a possibility. He was looking for a fit that would help him continue to grow his love for the game.

“Right after some Nor-Sask (North Sask Academy) Camps and Nor-Sask (North Sask Academy) teams and things like that, I decided like this is the sport I want to be in,” said McLean. “This is the sport I want to focus on mainly.

“I play a little bit of basketball on the side. Football has always been my main focus. I’m thrilled to play this sport.

“‘Sarge’ (Sargeant) came and talked to me during high school in Grade 12. Just watching Hilltops too, it is such a great culture to be around. I just thought I wanted to become a Hilltop after high school.”

With the Hilltops, McLean found the family feeling he was looking for. During his first two seasons, McLean was pumped to learn from veteran teammates Josh Ewanchyna and Ben Abrook.

Carter McLean had gotten better at hitting holes inside.
During the 2018 regular season, Ewanchyna piled up 1,007 yards rushing in the regular season in his final campaign with the Hilltops. Abrook had a stellar final season with the Hilltops in 2019 compiling 1,215 yards rushing in the regular season.

Both Ewanchyna and Abrook play in the U Sports ranks with Ewanchyna suiting up for the University of Saskatchewan Huskies and Abrook dressing for the University of Calgary Dinos.

McLean said he was more of a shifty running back in high school and learned how to hit the holes on inside runs better and with more purpose and power observing Ewanchyna and Abrook.

“Watching Josh and Ben play, it was amazing,” said McLean. “Those two guys have great talent for the sport.

“I’m really excited for Ben playing in Calgary and Josh playing at U of S. I’m really excited for those guys. They are great guys and great people to be around, so I’m really excited for them.

“I got a lot of learning points from them for sure.”

Going back to their first season in 1947, the Hilltops have had a lineage of great running backs. Sargeant said McLean continues that lineage and has been well coached by running backs coach and another former Hilltops star running back in Andre Lalonde.

 “Carter (McLean) is a great kid,” said Sargeant. “He does everything right.

“He wants to be great. He had a great off-season. He showed up bigger, stronger and faster.

“He is reaping some of the rewards. He is one of the guys that we have to get the ball more to, and we’re going to do that.”

Carter McLean is one of the CJFL’s top running backs.
Going forward, McLean said the Hilltops are focused on improving each day in order to become a team that wins the CJFL title once again.

Before the 2020 campaign was lost due the COVID-19 pandemic, the Hilltops had won six straight CJFL championships, and McLean believes the focus that existed in his first two seasons in 2018 and 2019 is there.

With that said, the 21-year-old said everyone with the Hilltops is relishing in how special it is to play another football season again.

“We’re cherishing every moment we have out here on this field,” said McLean. “We have to pretty much, so that we can continue playing and hanging out with everyone and having fun playing this sport.”

Saturday’s game was a back-and-forth contest that saw the Hilltops lead 7-3 after the first quarter, and the Thunder held a 16-14 advantage at halftime and 23-20 edge after the third quarter expired.

At the 2:54 mark of the fourth quarter, Dutton hit speedy receiver Ethan Godson with a 38-yard touchdown pass to put the Hilltops in front 27-23. That set the stage for the dramatics inside of the final two minutes of the contest.

The Hilltops also got a two-yard touchdown run from backup running back Jordan Tabin in the contest. Hilltops kicker Teijon Abel-Douglas field goals from 16 and 26 yards to round out the scoring for the visitors.

The Thunder had a two-yard touchdown run from running back Brayden Long, and Shewchuk hit receiver Rylan Sokul on a 32-yard scoring toss for a major score.

Maximuik hit field goals from 41, 35 and 34 yards out to round out the scoring for Regina.

With Saturday’s setback, the Hilltops saw their 31-game road winning streak including action in the CJFL regular season and post-season come to an end. It is believed the Hilltops road winning streak is a CJFL record.

Carter McLean and the Hilltops have high hopes for 2021.
Before Saturday’s outing, the last time the Hilltops lost on the road was way back on August 17, 2014 when they dropped a 19-16 overtime decision to the Thunder in Regina at Taylor Field.

The Hilltops return to action on Sunday, September 26 when they host the Winnipeg Rifles at 1 p.m. at Saskatoon Minor Football Field. The Thunder travel to Sherwood Park, Alta., on Sunday, September 26 to take on the Edmonton Wildcats at 1 p.m. at Emerald Hills Regional Park.

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