When the Saskatoon Hilltops march out onto the turf at SMF Field for their biggest game of the season yet on Sunday, the temperature is expected to hover around the freezing mark.
They’re conditions that have become very familiar to the Hilltops over the past week, but will be foreign to their opponent in the St. Clair Saints out of Ontario who have been enjoying days of 20 C or higher this month.
“I think it could play a huge effect,” said Hilltops quarterback Treyton Reider. “From them all coming all the way over there where it’s hot to down here, it’s pretty cold. Going out there and practicing every day, it definitely plays a factor.
“I think it will be hard for them to come down here and play.”
The Hilltops are hoping Mother Nature will be on their side as they will host the Saints in a battle of two undefeated football teams, squaring off in Canadian Junior Football League semi-finals.
It will come one week after Saskatoon dispatched the Regina Thunder in the Prairie Football Conference championship game, earning their first trophy of the season and rallying from a fourth-quarter deficit to extend the season by at least another week.
“It takes us to the next level because what I saw on that field on Sunday was a poise and confidence that I hadn’t always seen,” said Hilltops head coach Tom Sargeant.
“I got to see it in the right players that needed to have that. It’s just that feel, that eye-test that I got where these guys had it and they knew they had it.”
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Trailing the Thunder 13-9 after three quarters, the ‘Toppers’ executed a pair of key drives to score points including a Boston Davidsen touchdown with under five minutes left in the game to take the lead.
Defensive back Dalton Urban would intercept Regina quarterback Ethan Hugg’s Hail Mary attempt on the final play of the game to secure a 21-13 victory to claim their first conference title since 2021.
“It might be a good thing that we had to go through that,” said Hilltops defensive back Carter Wingert.
“We hadn’t had to really go through a whole lot of adversity yet this year. That was the first time I think we’ve trailed in the fourth quarter. It just shows that all the guys stick together, kept playing hard and we got it done.”
Now, it’s one of Canada’s top junior football clubs that Saskatoon will have to contend with as they’ll face the Saints who are coming off a 32-31 thriller over the London Beefeaters to claim the Ontario Football Conference championship.
St. Clair’s offence has been one of the top ranked units in the country, averaging over 42 points per game. However, they will match up against a Hilltops defence that has reached historic marks in its stinginess.
Allowing just one touchdown over their last three games, linebacker Matthew Wist said it’s been a complete buy-in from all members of the Hilltops defensive unit.
“When our [defensive] line has pressure like that, they’re just chucking the ball up and our [defensive backs] are making plays on the ball,” said Wist. “And vice-versa, when our defensive backs are making good coverage, then we’re getting to the quarterback.”
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Davidsen is once again expected to carry much of the offensive load for the Hilltops, as the conference MVP added 161 yards rushing and two touchdowns to his total from the conference title game.
According to Sargeant, his top back will get plenty of touches against the Saints as well.
“I guarantee he’s going to be one of the best players on the field come Sunday,” said Sargeant. “I guarantee he’s going to touch that thing between 20 and 25 times during the game. Ultimately when we do that, the Hilltops seem to be having a lot of success this year.”
Seeing his graduation from the Hilltops program approaching with a maximum of two games remaining in the season, Davidsen said this chance at making a run isn’t lost on him.
“It’s an exciting opportunity especially for a fifth-year like me,” said Davidsen. “There’s only a small number of these games left, so you got to make the most of them.
“We’re like a family here. So I know that no matter what circumstance we’re in, our team is not going to give up. They have my back, just like I’ll have theirs.”
A big change this week for the Hilltops is scouting an opponent they haven’t seen at all this season, in comparison to their Prairie Football Conference rivals.
That’s meant an even greater emphasis on film study and pre-game scouting of the Saints.
“I think the biggest would be film work,” said Reider. “Just watching them all the time, trying to see what they’re doing. But at the same time, when you get to the game it’s a whole different feel than what film work shows.”
This will be the Hilltops’ final game at home this season, either hitting the road for the national title game or seeing their season come to a close after Sunday.
Expecting a ravenous atmosphere at SMF Field, Sargeant is hoping to make life difficult from the national anthem to trophy presentation for their visitors from out east.
“They’re coming into Saskatoon, we’re planning not to be good hosts because that’s our job,” said Sargeant. “Our job is to come in and make sure Saskatoon is a place you don’t want to come. Traditionally, we’ve been able to do that.”
The Hilltops and Saints will clash at 1:00 pm Sunday with the winner advancing to the 2023 Canadian Bowl in British Columbia, facing the winner of the other CJFL semi-final between the Okanagan Sun and Westshore Rebels.
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