Saturday 5 August 2023

‘Sarge,’ Yausie, Hilltops coaches face unique challenge in 2023

Saskatoon club young, inexperienced in resetting PFC

Jeff Yausie and Tom Sargeant are the Hilltops dynamic coaching duo.
Tom Sargeant and Jeff Yausie – you seemingly can’t have one without the other when it comes to coaching the Saskatoon Hilltops.

Sargeant was named head coach of the storied and historic CJFL club in December of 1997 having served as an assistant coach for seven seasons from 1991 to 1997. Yausie is going into his 22nd season as a linebackers coach with the Hilltops and 13th campaign as defensive co-ordinator.

Through the Hilltops run of winning nine CJFL championships in a span of 10 years that included three consecutive wins from 2010 to 2012 and six straight titles from 2014 to 2019, Sargeant and Yausie have come to the forefront in the minds of football followers in Canada as the dynamic duo of the Hilltops coaching staff.

Both are quick to add the Hilltops success comes from the work the team receives from the entirety of the club’s veteran coaching staff. The coaching staff includes offensive coordinator Shane Reider, special teams coordinator Andre Lalonde, Brent Turkington, Donnie Davidsen, Dave Fisher, Barclay Schlosser and Bruce Rempel.

Turkington has been on the staff for 24 seasons, while Lalonde, Schlosser and Rempel are the relative newcomers entering their eighth, seventh and sixth seasons with the team respectively.

Tom Sargeant has been the Hilltops HC since Dec. 1997.
In 2023, Sargeant, Yausie and the Hilltops coaches face a unique challenge of guiding a more youthful and inexperienced team through a CJFL campaign. A reality check about the work that needs to be done came during in the Hilltops Alumni Game played Thursday at Ron Atchison Field, when the Alumni Team rolled to a 32-1 victory.

Sargeant said the coaches are going to get to work and grind as hard as ever to correct things. He said the Hilltops coaches have high trust in each other.

“It is a brotherhood,” said Sargeant. “We all roll up our sleeves.

“The good thing is we’re all embarrassed. We’re all not feeling very good about ourselves. We’ll have the tough conversations, the critical conversations, the open conversations, and we’ll grind and grind and make sure by next week we coach a better team and more importantly they come out and play better.

“You can do whatever you want, but once they get between the lines they have to go play the game. We have to instill a lot of energy, a lot of passion and the smarts.”

The Hilltops had 20 players exhaust their CJFL eligibility at the conclusion of the 2022 campaign including four starters on the offensive line in Jordan Bisson, Luciano Jolly, Jayson Kehler and Ethan Paslowski along with three starters on the defensive line in Jaxon Funk, Daylen Hartz and Dylan McNutt. The graduations included star weak side linebacker Konner Johnson, who won the CJFL’s Larry Wruck Defensive Player of the Year award in 2022.

Jeff Yausie is entering his 22nd season on the Hilltops coaching staff.
“We miss our studs and veterans, but it is really fun to coach new guys and new faces,” said Yausie. “We have to help build what they are going to be.

“They have to learn how to play hard and play fast and to celebrate and play for each other and to be a great team. Our offence needed our help on defence (in the Alumni Game). We had zero turnovers in the first half.

“Our offence needed a couple of turnovers to give them a short field and to give them some life. They absolutely needed that, and we didn’t do it.”

The Hilltops open their regular season schedule on Sunday, August 13, at 1 p.m. when they host the Edmonton Wildcats at Saskatoon Minor Football Field. Sargeant and Yausie both said the focus turns to making the Hilltops game ready for that contest.

Sargeant said he thought the Hilltops had a good week of practice heading into the Alumni Game. Alumni quarterback Jordan Walls, who played for five straight CJFL championship winners from 2014-18, showed he could still shred a defence like NFL all-time great Tom Brady.

Jordan Walls fires a pass downfield for the Alumni Team.
The Hilltops offence was stuck in quicksand going against an Alumni defence that had standouts everywhere like linebacker Cody Peters, who won the CJFL’s Larry Wruck Defensive Player of the Year award in 2018. Peters also played on five straight CJFL championship winners from 2014 to 2018.

“It was a great alumni effort with high-end talent – the hearts and the smarts,” said Sargeant. “They were so smart out there.

“They just made us look like a real young and immature football team, which I guess maybe I thought we were but didn’t want to think that. At least now I know. If this is ground zero, then we will be OK.

“If not, then we’re in a lot of trouble.”

While the Hilltops are finding their way, it appears they won’t be alone in that department in 2023. Due to the fact the 2020 CJFL season was lost due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic that gripped the world, the circuit’s leaders elected to give 1998 and 1999 born players an extra year of eligibility.

That decision resulted in two classes of players graduating following the conclusion of last season with players born in 1999 and 2000 exhausting their eligibilities at the end of the campaign. Clubs in the Prairie Football Conference the Hilltops play out of are seeing significant turnover making the 2023 season a big reset one.

QB Trey Reider and the Hilltops struggled against the Alumni Team.
Yausie said the Hilltops coaches will put in the effort to get the club going in an upward direction on the field.

“We’re such good friends that we’ll not accept what we saw,” said Yausie. “I know ‘Sarge’ is a great competitor.

“I know he’ll push us as hard or harder than he will push the kids. We’ll get in and watch our film and get ready to play an unknown opponent really against the Wildcats. There are a lot of unknowns about our league this year.

“I don’t know who the quarterbacks are, and there are some new coordinators. The one thing I know is we will work extremely hard to get better.”

At age 58, Sargeant said he is still as motivated and passionate as ever when it comes to coaching the Hilltops. When it comes to facing the challenges of the 2023 campaign, he is pumped he gets to do it with Yausie and the rest of the Hilltops coaching staff.

“I know what their pride is all about,” said Sargeant. “As I said, there were some good discussions during this game.

HC Tom Sargeant knows his staff has a lot of work ahead of them.
“I know the pride of that group, and I know that at the end of the day we’ll embrace this challenge. We have way more work than maybe I thought we did. I’m just trying to do all that processing now, because I said this was an old fashioned butt kicking that as I said didn’t see coming.

“We have to figure out how to react and respond properly.”

At age 57, Yausie said his love for football is still there. He loves coaching with Sargeant and the rest of the Hilltops coaching staff and helping the players grow. Yausie said that love for everything about the game keeps the Hilltops coaches coming back year after year.

“I think you have to love what you do,” said Yausie. “When you love what you do, it is easy to come to practice.

“I love the guys I coach with, and Tom (Sargeant) has built that in a bunch of different ways. I never thought that I would be coaching at this age. I still got the zip.

Jeff Yausie believes the Hilltops coaches will get the team rolling again.
“I still got some life and energy. I just have fun, and coaching these young guys keeps you young.”

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