Sunday 20 August 2023

Veteran captain Wist has faith in Hilltops’ youngsters

Saskatoon romps over Rifles 49-0 in Winnipeg

MLB Matt Wist is one of the Hilltops defensive captains. 
Matt Wist is a part of a minority in the Saskatoon Hilltops dressing room these days, but he believes that minority is a group all of his teammates can be a part of.

The Hilltops star middle linebacker is one of five players in the team’s dressing room who owns a CJFL championship ring. Wist is one of five holdovers along with linebacker Wade Keating, defensive back Carter Wingert, running back Boston Davidsen and defensive lineman Craig Torgerson left from the Hilltops 12-0 CJFL title winning team in 2019.

All five of those players are playing out their final seasons of CJFL eligibility with the Hilltops along with linebacker Jordan Levesque and offensive lineman Justice Walker.

It never crossed Wist’s mind that the number of active players with CJFL championship rings on the Hilltops roster could shrink down to five.

“It is pretty crazy,” said Wist, who is one of the Hilltops defensive captains. “I think we learned a lot from that first year, because it was a grind.

“It wasn’t one of those years where we were blowing out every team. We definitely learned how to work hard and earn what we deserve.”

Back in the 2019 campaign, the Hilltops opened their schedule slugging out three road wins downing the Rifles in Winnipeg 34-20, the Thunder in Regina 34-16 and the Huskies in Edmonton 24-22. In their home opener and fourth game of the schedule, the Hilltops needed a last minute touchdown to down the Thunder 28-21 at Saskatoon Minor Football Field.

The Hilltops went on a roll at that point until the CJFL championship game, where they battled past the Rams in Langley, B.C., 11-6 in a defensive slugfest.

Matt Wist finished sixth in defensive points in the PFC in 2022.
Fast forward to the current campaign, the Hilltops entered the 2023 season after having 20 players exhaust their CJFL eligibility at the end of the 2022 season. The Hilltops have a more youthful roster in 2023, but with that noted, Wist believes the youngsters can be special.

“It is definitely different losing all those guys from last year,” said Wist, who stands 6-feet and weighs 225 pounds. “We’re definitely a young and talented team that likes to fly around and have lots of fun, and we have lots of energy.

“It brings a lot to our game.”

Taking on the Rifles in Winnipeg at East Side Eagles Field on Sunday, Wist and Wingert combined in one moment to show the old guys can and will still make plays. Early in the fourth quarter, Wist stripped the ball from the Rifles quarterback.

Wingert recovered the football and returned it to the end zone to put the Hilltops up 45-0. The Hilltops would cruise to a 49-0 victory in the CJFL regular season clash improving to 2-0, while the Rifles fell to 1-1.

The youngsters on defence also make lots of plays in that game. Dalton Urban, who is the team’s third-year safety, had a pair of interceptions and returned one of those picks for a touchdown to give the Hilltops a 38-0 lead late in the third quarter. Rookie linebacker Denym Mantyka also came up with an interception in the fourth quarter.

Wist, who is a graduate of Saskatoon’s Bethlehem Catholic High School Stars Football Team, has been impressed with the young players on the Hilltops roster and believes they still have lots of room to grow and be better.

“Lots of talent,” said Wist, who is also the Hilltops regular punter this season. “They have lots to learn still.

“They show up. They work hard, and they just want to get better every day, so it is great to have them here.”

Matt Wist became the Hilltops regular punter this season.
Legendary Hilltops head coach Tom Sargeant said it has been big to have Wist’s veteran presence on the team that has a youthful roster this season. The sideline boss said his 22-year-old middle linebacker has been leading by example on the field.

“Any time you have players that are proven in the league and have a lot of experience, you need them to step up and be your leaders,” said Sargeant. “For an example, Matt on defence has done a good job of bringing the energy and making players accountable, and he is helping us on special teams.

“He is our punter this year. He had a 43 yard average (in a 50-2 win over Edmonton Wildcats on August 13). He is a player with confidence.

“When he is on and he is full of confidence, he makes a lot of plays. He has played a lot, so he should be one of our guys leading us out there with smarts, and that is what we’ve seen.”

In eight regular season games in 2022, Wist finished sixth in defensive points in the PFC with 98.5 points coming off 36 solo defensive tackles, 19 defensive tackle assists, one interception, one pass knockdown and a half quarterback sack. He did get to punt the ball five times for an average of 56.0 yards per kick last season.

During the Hilltops 50-2 romp over the Wildcats at Saskatoon Minor Football Field this past August 13, Wist, who is in his third season as the starter at middle linebacker, had two solo defensive tackles, two defensive tackle assists and one interception. He also punted the ball six times for an average of 43.3 yards per kick.

Wist took over the punting duties with the graduation of place kicker/punter Connor Green at the end of the 2022 campaign. Sargeant said the team’s coaching staff had been considering letting Wist take on the duties as the team’s punter, but things just lined up better for him to take on the role full time this season.

“We’ve been working over this over the last couple of years,” said Sargeant. “There is always someone in there that maybe the coaches had more confidence in.

Matt Wist averaged 43.3 yards per punt in Week 1 in 2023.
“As I said, this is a young team, and it is his time. I think he enjoys it, and we embrace it. When he hits it the way he hits it, it is a game breaker.

“It makes a difference, and it gets everyone excited. We’re expecting more, and he is expecting more. I can’t wait to see him do more.”

With being a fifth-year player, Wist said he has noticed that the younger players are looking up to him frequently. Wist said he is trying to be more mindful of how he acts on and off the field to set a good example for the younger players due to the fact he is noticing more eyes looking his way. On top of being good players on the field, Wist wants the young players to be good people in their lives away from the game.

He embraces the role he is taking on in 2023. Wist is enjoying the fact the team has had a real good focus over the first two weeks of the season being in the present and enjoying that moment of the journey the season takes. When that journey ends, Wist would like it to be one where everyone on the roster gets a CJFL championship ring.

Personally, he said it would be a cool way to cap his time with the venerable Saskatoon squad and the careers of the team’s six other fifth-year players.

“It would be a great way to end off our career as Hilltops,” said Wist. “That is obviously the end goal to be a Canadian champion.

“We just have to take it one day at a time with these young guys to teach them you can’t look too far ahead. You just have to work day by day.”

In Sunday’s win over the Rifles, the Hilltops led 3-0 after the first quarter, 18-0 at halftime and 38-0 after three quarters. Teijon Abel-Douglas, who is the team’s third-year kicker, made five field goals in the win.

Rookie receiver Datiel Fountaine and third-year pass catcher Noah Flaman each had major scores on receptions for Saskatoon. The Rifles conceded three safeties to the Hilltops to further aid the convincing win by the Saskatoon side.

The Hilltops can celebrate being 2-0 in 2023.
The Hilltops return to action this coming Sunday when they host the Calgary Colts (0-2) at 1 p.m. at Saskatoon Minor Football Field.

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