Saturday, 17 September 2022

Skid puts Hilltops in unfamiliar territory in CJFL

Saskatoon falls to 2-3 with 23-7 loss to Thunder

Boden Marley and the Hilltops have lost three straight games.
Shockingly could this Saskatoon Hilltops be team what its record says it is?

Unfortunately, the Hilltops recent perfect CJFL championship seasons of going 11-0 in 2018 and 12-0 in 2019 seem like something long gone in the rearview mirror.

On Saturday at Mosaic Stadium in Regina, the Hilltops fell 23-7 to the host Thunder. The setback was a third straight for the Hilltops, who saw their CJFL regular season record fall to 2-3.

The last time the Hilltops lost three games during an entire CJFL regular season came back in 1993, when they posted a 5-3 mark to finish second in the PFC. In the 1993 post-season, Saskatoon advanced to the PFC final ultimately falling 30-15 to the Regina Rams, who advanced to win the CJFL title with a perfect 12-0 record.

It is unknown when exactly the Hilltops last lost three games in a row before their current skid. The last time the Hilltops had a losing regular season record came back in 1973, when they posted a 3-4-1 mark in the then Manitoba-Saskatchewan Junior Football League.

The Manitoba-Saskatchewan Junior Football League in 1973 was a conference comprised of the Hilltops, Rams, Winnipeg Hawkeyes and Winnipeg Rods. The Hawkeyes and Rods junior programs are both defunct, while the Rams joined the U Sports ranks as the University of Regina Rams in 1999.

This is the first time the Hilltops have lost three regular season games let alone three in a row under the guidance of legendary head coach Tom Sargeant, who became the team’s top sideline boss before the start of the 1998 CJFL season. Sargeant’s career record is 220-36-2 overall including 163-26-2 in regular season play.

During the first two games of their current three-game skid, the Hilltops faltered in moments. After starting 2-0, the Hilltops losing streak started on August 28 with a 19-16 setback to the Rifles at East Side Eagles Field in Winnipeg.

The Hilltops held a 16-13 advantage at the 3:45 mark of the fourth quarter, but weren’t able to close out the contest down the stretch. Rifles kicker Donavon Downing booted two field goals including the winner from 10-yards out with 36 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter to pull out the 19-16 victory.

Hilltops QB Damon Dutton, left, was pulled in the second quarter.
Saskatoon’s second straight loss came on September 10 at Saskatoon Minor Football Field, when they dropped a 29-21 decision in overtime to their provincial rivals in the Thunder. That was a contest where the Hilltops were in position to win but couldn’t make the plays down the stretch to seal a final outcome in their favour.

The Hilltops were up 21-14 and their offence was given the ball with less than two minutes to play just inside Regina’s side of midfield after a fumble recovery by Saskatoon defensive back Dylan Cook. Saskatoon’s offence wasn’t able to get a first down, and the Thunder gained another offensive possession after a Hilltops punt.

On that ensuing possession the Thunder found themselves facing a third-and-eight situation from the Saskatoon 31 yard line. Thunder quarterback Carter Shewchuk connected with receiver Isaiah Woodley on a 31-yard touchdown pass that evened the score at 21-21 with 16.8 seconds remaining the quarter.

Woodley had to make a great adjustment on an underthrown pass to allow that scoring play happen.

The Thunder got the winning touchdown in overtime on a 15-yard run from running back Ryland Leichert, while Shewchuk connected with receiver Isaac Ford on a two-point convert. In the CJFL, teams must attempt a two-point convert after every major score due to using the CFL’s shootout format to decide extra time games.

When those two sides met again on Saturday in Regina, there was no wondering what might have been if two or three plays were changed in critical moments in the fourth quarter or overtime. The Thunder seemingly scored 23 points in the slowest way possible to post a solid victory and improve to 5-0.

The Hilltops were close on the scoreboard for most of the contest but couldn’t seem to get kickstarted to start any type of roll of momentum. Regina had possession of the ball for long stretches of time, while the Hilltops had a significant number of drives where they went two-and-out.

Trey Reider score the Hilltops only TD on Saturday.
Regina held a 5-0 lead at the end of the first quarter thanks to a 35-yard field goal by kicker Eric Maximuik and a conceded safety by the Hilltops due to bad field position.

Just 51 seconds into the second quarter, Hilltops starting quarterback Damon Dutton was intercepted by Thunder star defensive back Justin McKerracher, who returned the ball 35 yards for a touchdown to increase the host side’s advantage to 12-0. McKerracher would ultimately make three interceptions on the day to sit with five picks on the season.

Dutton played one more two-and-out series, which included being sacked on first down by Thunder defensive lineman Reece McCormick, before being pulled for backup quarterback Trey Reider. Reider played the rest of the way in relief.

With 2:38 remaining in the second quarter, the Hilltops conceded another safety due to bad field position to give the Thunder a 14-0 advantage.

Despite all the momentum being on the Thunder’s side, the Hilltops broke through on the scoreboard, when Reider executed a quarterback sneak from one-yard out for a major score that cut Regina’s advantage to 14-7 with 33 seconds remaining in the second quarter. That Hilltops scoring drive was kept alive by roughing the kicker and rough the passer infractions against the Thunder.

Early in the third quarter, the Hilltops came up with a goal-line stand turning away Leichert on a third-and-goal gamble from the Saskatoon one yard line.

Again, the Hilltops couldn’t build momentum off that stop and had to concede their third safety of the game on their ensuing offensive possession due to the bad field position increasing the Thunder’s edge to 16-7.

With 56 seconds remaining in the third quarter, Thunder running back Ife Adebogun punched in a touchdown from one-yard out to ultimately round out the game’s scoring at 23-7.

Hilltops RB Boston Davidsen, right, was kept in check on Saturday.
Inside the final minute of the fourth quarter, the Hilltops were turned away by a Thunder goal-line stand, when Reider was stopped on a quarterback sneak attempt on a third-and-goal gamble from the Regina one yard line.

With the win, the Thunder sweep the regular season series and the home-and-home set with the Hilltops 2-0. That marked the second straight year the Thunder have claimed the regular season series against the Hilltops 2-0, which was a first in the history of the Regina program that began play in 2000.

The Hilltops will try to end their skid, when they return to action on Sunday, September 25, when they travel to Calgary to face the Colts.

At the moment, the Colts, Edmonton Huskies and Rifles all have 2-2 records. The Colts and Huskies face each other this coming Sunday (tomorrow) in Edmonton, while the Rifles will also be in the Alberta capital at the same time taking on the 0-4 Wildcats.

Going forward, the Hilltops will be in a battle for the race for second place in the PFC and the right to host a game in the first round of the playoffs. As inconceivable as it sounds, the Hilltops could miss the post-season for the first time since 1971, when they posted a 3-5 record playing in the then Manitoba-Saskatchewan Junior Football League.

In Saturday’s loss to the Thunder, the Hilltops did have players make good plays in spurts including receiver Boden Marley and star power running back Boston Davidsen on offence and defensive end Riece Kack, who had a sack, and defensive back Evan Mantyka, who had an interception, on defence.

They have the coaches that can guide them out of this unaccustomed position. On paper, they have players who have the potential to allow the Hilltops to have a special season.

With all the media cuts that have happened in Canada, they aren’t going to face the big outside pressure to turn things around, and they won’t face anywhere near the scrutiny that comes the way of the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders, who are facing a tonne of heat being 6-8 on the Canadian professional football circuit.

Still at this time, the facts lead to the conclusion that realistic doubt has to exist if the Hilltops can get thing done on the field in 2022.

Hilltops HC Tom Sargeant, right, faces his first ever three-game skid.
At the moment, the Hilltops are what their record says they are and that is that they are a 2-3 football team.

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