The Saskatoon Hilltops are preparing for the next phase of their quest for a fourth straight Canadian Bowl championship as the playoffs open Sunday with the Prairie Football Conference semifinal clash against the Winnipeg Rifles.
The Toppers clinched first place in the final standings and home-field advantage through the Western playoffs with a 38-28 win over the previously unbeaten Huskies on a cold and windy Saturday night in Edmonton.
The Huskies battled back from a 21-point fourth quarter deficit with back-to-back touchdowns before Saskatoon put the game away after the recovery of an on-side kick followed by a field goal with about a minute to go.
Although pleased with finishing first, head coach Tom Sergeant said they are still striving for a consistent 60-minutes of solid football.
“We’re still not playing the type of high end-high energy football for 60-minutes I’d like to see,” said Sergeant who took responsibility for the inconsistency against the Huskies.
“At the end of the day I have to own that, have to coach better, I expect more of my players, we’ve got to do a better job of finishing games.”
The Hilltops broke the game open in the third quarter with three unanswered rushing touchdowns. Sergeant said that part of their game continues to improve.
“The O-line’s getting better and you’ve got two good running back in (Josh) Ewanchyna and Machart and Colin Stumborg did a great job of lead blocking,” said Sargeant who added the team’s rushing game still isn’t totally cohesive.
“I still need to see my receivers blocking better and you know, twelve people being a bigger part of the process.”
Machart and Ewanchyna ran for 143 and 100 yards respectively in the absence of injured all-star Logan Fischer. Sergeant said Fischer could be back for Sunday’s game.
“It’s going to be how he performs this week. We’re pretty comfortable with the backs that we have, but Logan’s our guy and if he’s healthy, close to 100%, he’ll be our starting running back.”
The Hilltops swept both regular season games against the Rifles with a 44-0 week-two victory in Winnipeg and a 52-26 decision Sept. 24 in Saskatoon. However, Sergeant pointed out the Rifles are coming off an impressive win over Regina and have four-game breakers on offence.
“They’ve got the quarterback (Jonathan Remple) and (Odun) Ogidan and (Micheal) Ritchott, they’re three in the top ten rushing, they’re high octane and 82’s (Alexander Tachinski) a heck of a receiver, so they’ve got the right pieces on the field, so we’ve got to defend smart and have a clear game plan of knowing how to defend and how to play.”
Rictchott won the Prairie Football Conference rushing title with 961 yards, passing the injured Fischer (804 yards) in the final regular season game with 169 rushing yards on 19 carries during the 36-22 win over the Thunder.
Sergeant said advancing in the playoffs means taking their game to the next level.
“We finished first, so that was goal number one, goal number two is surviving through the playoffs. It’s never been easy, we’ve never had an easy road, as long as my players can stay focused and locked in and listen to the coaches and understand the game plans, we will be fine.”
Opening kick-off at Saskatoon Minor Football Field is at 1 p.m. with the broadcast on 92.9 THE BULL signing on at 12;30.