Sunday, 30 October 2022

Thunder triplets too much for Hilltops in PFC final

Saskatoon’s run of consecutive conference crown ends

Konner Johnson, right, gives a five to his mom, Dawn.
REGINA, Sask. - Moments after his CJFL playing career with the Saskatoon Hilltops came to an end, Konner Johnson was thinking about his coaches.

On Sunday before 1,207 spectators at Mosaic Stadium, the Hilltops 2022 campaign concluded with a 39-21 loss to the host Regina Thunder in the PFC final. With the win, the Thunder, who are 10-0 overall, advance to host the CJFL championship game – the Canadian Bowl – on November 12 at 1 p.m. at Mosaic Stadium against the Okanagan Sun. The Hilltops exit the 2022 campaign with a 6-4 overall mark.

On Saturday at Acumen Stadium in London, Ont., the BCFC champion Sun downed the host and OFC champion St. Clair Saints 42-24 in a CJFL semifinal contest to advance to the Canadian Bowl. The Sun are 13-0 overall, while the Saints conclude the 2022 campaign with a 10-1 overall mark.

The Thunder celebrate with the PFC championship trophy.
Johnson joined the Hilltops in 2018 and was a member of their 11-0 CJFL championship team in 2018 and 12-0 CJFL tile winner in 2019. After the 2020 CJFL campaign was cancelled due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic that has gripped the world, Johnson rose to star status as a weak side linebacker with the Hilltops in 2021 helping them win a seventh straight PFC title taking the conference championship game 29-9 at Mosaic Stadium.

The Hilltops followed that victory by falling in the CJFL semifinal 17-14 to that year’s BCFC champion Langley Rams at McLeod Stadium in Langley, B.C. The Rams advanced on to win the Canadian Bowl to become CJFL champions.

Carter Shewchuk threw for 312 yards for the Thunder.
Johnson had his heart set on helping the Hilltops return to the Canadian Bowl to once again become CJFL champions along with the club’s 19 other graduating players. The Melfort, Sask., product said there were a lot of things he would take away and remember from his time with the Hilltops.

One of the biggest will be the impact the coaching staff led by legendary head coach Tom Sargeant and his right hand man in defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Jeff Yausie had on the team.

“They turn boys into men these coaches,” said Johnson, who had 10.5 total tackles in his final CJFL contest. “They’re amazing coaches and good role models in life.

Ryland Leichert carried the ball 33 times for 190 yards and two TDs.
“I’m definitely going to miss it. I am pretty sad.”

In Sunday’s PFC final, the Hilltops had all sorts of problems with the Thunder’s triplets in quarterback Carter Shewchuk, running back Ryland Leichert and receiver Rylan Sokul. All three Regina stars had big days.

Shewchuk completed 25-of-31 passes for 312 yards, one touchdown and didn’t throw any interceptions. To compliment his passing, Shewchuk ran the ball six times for 40 yards and scored two touchdowns.

Leichert carried the ball 33 times for 190 yards and two touchdowns. He also hauled in one pass for 15 yards. Sokul hauled in seven passes for 101 yards.

Rylan Sokul had seven catches for 101 yards for the Thunder.
On top of the big games Shewchuk, Leichert and Sokul had, Johnson was disappointed with how things went in the turnover department for his team. The Hilltops defensive unit that is usually so proficient in forcing turnovers wasn’t able to force a single turnover out of the Thunder offence.

The Thunder defence forced four turnovers from the Hilltops offence including an interception and three turnovers on downs.

“We always want to get five turnovers in a game,” said Johnson, who is a graduate of the Melfort and Unit Comprehensive Collegiate Comets nine-man football team. “That really helps the offence.

“Today, I don’t know if we got any, so that really affected the game a lot.”

Konner Johnson had 10 total tackles for the Hilltops.
For a time in the first quarter, it appeared the Hilltops were destined to win an eighth straight PFC crown. The Thunder set up to try a 37-yard field goal on the game’s first possession, but kicker Eric Maximuik’s boot sailed wide.

Hilltops 17-year-old rookie running back Charles Sawi returned the missed kick to the Saskatoon 53 yard line. The visitors proceeded to engineer a touchdown drive from that point that concluded with starting quarterback Trey Reider hitting veteran receiver Presley Peterson with an 11-yard touchdown toss to put the Hilltops up 7-0.

The Thunder answered back on their ensuing offensive series that concluded with Shewchuk connecting with depth receiver Garion Miller for a two-yard touchdown toss that evened the score at 7-7 with 36 seconds remaining in the second quarter.

Presley Peterson, left, hauls in an 11-yards TD catch for the Hilltops.
At the 8:33 mark of the second quarter, Maxmuik connected on a 29-yard field goal with the wind to put the Thunder in front 10-7. After that kick, a key turning point occurred.

On Hilltops first play on their ensuing offensive possession, Reider was intercepted by Thunder second-year defensive back Adam King giving the host side’s offensive a short field. The Thunder offense quickly drove the short field with the series ending in a one-yard touchdown run on a quarterback sneak by Shewchuk to increase Regina’s lead to 17-7.

That score gave the Thunder command of the game, and Johnson said his defensive unit needed to come up with a turnover after King’s interception halt Regina’s scoring run.

Garion Miller secures a TD catch for the Thunder.
“The defence just had to go out there and make a play back and get the ball back for our offence,” said Johnson. “We didn’t do that at that time, so then momentum kind of swung a bit.

“It just kind of affected the game there.”

With 1:59 remaining in the second quarter, Leichert ran in a major from 20 yards out for his first score of the contest to give the Thunder a 24-7 edge going into halftime. Regina’s 17-point lead really limited the Hilltops ability to use star power running back Boston Davidsen in attempting to overcome the three-score deficit.

The Hilltops inserted 22-year-old veteran quarterback Damon Dutton into the game for the first offensive series of the third quarter. Dutton completed 2-of-4 passes for 33 yards before the drive stalled.

Boston Davidsen ran the ball 13 times for 80 yards for the Hilltops.
The visitors reinserted Reider for their second series of the third quarter, and the 20-year-old engineered a scoring drive that concluded with him hitting Peterson with a 25-yard touchdown pass that cut the Thunder lead to 24-14.

Just 25 seconds into the fourth quarter, Maximuik came out to attempt a 26-yard field goal with the wind, but a gust of wind blew the kick attempt wide of the uprights and through the back of the end zone into the stands for a single point that gave the Thunder a 25-14 edge.

The Hilltops quickly drove downfield on their ensuing offensive series, and Reider scored on a quarterback sneak to trim the Thunder advantage to 25-21 with 11:54 remaining in the fourth quarter.

Ryland Leichert, left, gets help from his teammates on a run.
The Thunder didn’t lose their cool and responded on their ensuing offensive possession. The hosts engineered a scoring drive that concluded with Shewchuk scoring a major on a one-yard bootleg run to increase the Thunder lead to 32-21.

Shewchuk said his offensive unit was confident they would get a score to reassert control of the contest after the Hilltops cut the host’s lead to four points.

“Obviously, it was huge, and we knew we could score at will really,” said Shewchuk, who is playing out his final campaign of CJFL eligibility. “We just made a couple of mental errors that kind of slowed us down at the beginning of that second half there.

The Thunder celebrate Ryland Leichert’s first TD on Sunday.
“Obviously, just knowing and going back to what we were doing in the first half and knowing that we were the better team and just imposing the will on the line of scrimmage really helps.”

The Thunder proceeded to tack on a two-yard touchdown run from Leichert with 1:49 remaining in the fourth quarter to round out the 39-21 final score in favour of the host side.

Sargeant said the Hilltops were trying to focus on shutting down Leichert and the Thunder running attack as a main point of emphasis, but Leichert and the Thunder offensive line including left tackle Riley Schick, left guard Noah Steinly, centre Max Mcfadden, right guard Nicholas Makowsky and right tackle Conner Klassen didn’t allow it.

Charles Sawi returns a kickoff for the Hilltops.
“We tried everything, but at the end of the day, their O-line were getting on us and pushing us,” said Sargeant. “They just wanted it more.

“I didn’t think it was more simple than that, so it was disappointing. We have to live with our performance, and we have to grow and learn and get better. We have to get in the weight room and get bigger and stronger - bottom line.”

Sargeant gave Thunder head coach Scott MacAulay, his coaching staff and his team full credit for the victory on Sunday and wished them well as they embark towards the CJFL title game.

“It wasn’t much of a game today,” said Sargeant. “That Regina Thunder is a good football team.

The Mosaic Stadium faithful cheer on the Thunder.
“They came out, they were on point, and they certainly were the more physical team. I thought we had to do a better job on the line of scrimmage. We just couldn’t get any energy there.”

Shewchuk was elated that his side came out with the victory on Sunday. The 23-year-old signal caller has been with the Thunder since 2017, and he was pumped his squad is finally going back to the CJFL title game for the first time since 2013, when the Thunder downed the Vancouver Island Raiders 55-26 at historic Taylor Field.

“You work so hard and put so much time and effort in,” said Shewchuk. “You sacrifice so many different things in order to reach one goal.

Carter Shewchuk ran the ball for 40 yards and two TDs
“I’ve been doing that for six years. I think 11 or 12 of us have been doing it for six years throughout a pandemic, throughout a loss in the championship game and everything like that. It is really indescribable what it means to me, because it is just nice to know all that time and effort paid off.”

Reider finished the contest completing 16-of-25 passes for 198 yards and two touchdowns, while throwing one interception. Rookie Drake Douglas led the Hilltops in receiving with six catches for 76 yards.

Davidsen topped the Hilltops with 80 yards rushing on 13 carries.

On defence, middle linebacker Matt Wist led the Hilltops with 14 total tackles.

Linebacker Stephen Smith led all Thunder players with seven total tackles.

The Hilltops players meet their fans after Sunday’s PFC final loss.
While Johnson was disappointed his playing career with the Hilltops has come to an end, he said the Thunder earned full marks in picking up the victory on Sunday to advance to the Canadian Bowl.

“It is a tough loss, and we didn’t play our best today,” said Johnson. “Credit to the Regina Thunder, they had a good game today.”

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