Hilltops host CJFL national semifinal Sunday against Ontario’s St. Clair Saints

Michelle Berg/Saskatoon StarPhoenix Saskatoon Hilltops linebacker Matt Wist (44) and defensive lineman Riece Kack (47) celebrate during the Prairie Football Conference final against Regina Thunder on SMF Field at the Gordie Howe Sports Complex. Photo taken in Saskatoon, Sask. on Sunday, October 22, 2023.

Darren Zary

Saskatoon StarPhoenix

With the rival Regina Thunder out of the way, the Saskatoon Hilltops are on a mission to re-establish their decades-old winning tradition.

The Hilltops remain undefeated this season with a 10-and-0 record after capturing the 2023 Prairie Football Conference final on Sunday, knocking off the Thunder 21-13 before nearly 2,000 fans at SMF Field.

Saskatoon will now host the St. Clair Saints, from Ontario, in a Canadian Junior Football League national semifinal; the winner plays the British Columbia champion in the Canadian Bowl in B.C. on Nov. 11.

The Toppers have 22 Canadian Bowl titles to their credit, but after winning six straight from 2014 to 2019, they’ve come up short of their main goal.

On Sunday, the Thunder put more bend into the Hilltops’ vaunted defence than anybody this season, but the Toppers refused to break.

In the end, Saskatoon rallied from a 13-9 deficit with 12 unanswered points for the comeback win.

“We just have that championship heart,” offered Hilltops coach Tom Sargeant, who is the PFC coach of the year. “We’ve got a tradition that’s second to none, and a belief system. At the end of the day we knew that if we just stayed positive — the players were even saying, ‘We got this, we got this’ and they did. We flipped the field with the wind, got the special teams flavour, and the crowd was outstanding and the offence made plays when they needed to.

“At the end of the day, it’s just a great, gusty win that these fifth-year players deserve.”

Boston Davidson — the PFC outstanding offensive player and MVP — led the way with a pair of touchdown majors for the Hilltops, including the go-ahead score with 4:57 remaining.

Davidsen finished the game with 161 yards on 21 carries, including a 49-yard TD scamper in the opening quarter to give his team a 9-3 lead.

A sack by top PFC outstanding defensive lineman Riece Kack, with 7:26 left, forced a third-down punt by the Thunder to help set up the eventual game-winning drive.

A big 42-yard passing to play from Hilltops quarterback Trey Reider to fifth-year Hilltop Evan Ward was key, leading to a TD plunge by Davidsen.

Reider was good on 12 of 21 passing attempts for 165 yards but gave up one interception.

“It was a good test for our team and we’ve got another game next week and we’re excited for that,” noted Davidsen. “We’ve worked too hard for it to come to an end right now. We dug deep and figured it out.”

Saskatoon led 2-0 after one quarter and 9-3 at the half before Regina came out firing in the third with 10 unanswered points. The Toppers responded with 12 points in the fourth for the win as mistakes and penalties proved costly for the Thunder.

“There’s a lot of respect between the two teams but we don’t like each other, that’s for sure,” said Thunder head coach Scott MacAulay.

“A bunch of Saskatchewan dudes balling out for each other and laying it out on the line. I love this game and I love the opportunity to be in Saskatoon with my team going against them. It’s always a real tight battle. It says a lot about football in Saskatchewan and where we’re headed. The minor leagues are doing a great job; the high school teams are doing a great job. It makes our job a hell of a lot easier when you get these kids coming in and they’re good football players with the right mindset.”

Regina had 205 yards in total offence. Running back Ryland Leichert led the way with 98 yards on 23 carries. Quarterback Ethan Hugg completed 18 of 35 passes for 220 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Isaiah Woodley had five receptions for 73 yards.

“We had to put everything on the line against Regina,” said Sargeant. “You can throw out all the stats when you get going against these guys and we had to do everything in our power to get success and, you know what? We did it and now we move on.

“At this stage, you just want to live another week and now we’re living. It’s awesome.”