Regina Thunder 2017

New season. New stadium. The outcome, however, was hardly novel.

The Saskatoon Hilltops — winners of six of the past seven PFC and CJFL championships — kicked off the 2017 campaign Saturday by defeating the arch-rival Regina Thunder 37-20 before 1,947 spectators at the recently opened Mosaic Stadium.

“I love it,” Hilltops quarterback Jordan Walls said of the $278-million facility. “It’s beautiful. It’s my first time in it, so I took it all in before the game. It was fun to play in here.”

Walls threw two touchdown passes — a two-yarder to Colin Stumborg and a 38-yarder to Jason Price — and ran two yards for another major.

The latter touchdown capped a five-minute 55-second spasm in which the Hilltops turned three Thunder mistakes into six-pointers.

For starters, the snap was dropped on a Regina punt, resulting in a 21-yard loss. Saskatoon soon capitalized, with Logan Fischer scoring on a four-yard run at 7:50 of the second frame.

The Thunder’s next possession ended when the snap turned out to be a ground ball to punter Kris Calcutt, who scrambled away from the rush before managing a 23-yard, left-footed punt that rolled out of bounds at Regina’s 49-yard line. Saskatoon briskly moved into the red zone before Stumborg scored at 11:21.

Thunder quarterback Sawyer Buettner then had a deflected pass intercepted by Logan Kelsey-Stern, who sped 49 yards to the Thunder’s 21-yard line. Cue the touchdown run by Walls, who dove into the end zone at 13:45. Just like that, Saskatoon was ahead 22-8.

“Saskatoon’s a great team,” Regina head coach Scott MacAulay said. “The big thing with them is that they’re going to capitalize on any mistakes you’re making.”

Regina narrowed the gap to 22-14 when Ethan Hautz ran for an unconverted touchdown at 7:03 of the third quarter. Saskatoon responded by scoring the next two TD — courtesy of Price (at 5:09 of the fourth quarter) and Adam Machart (on a one-yard run at 10:19). Machart rushed for a game-high 110 yards.

The Thunder completed the scoring when Buettner found Calcutt in the end zone with 33 seconds left. Buettner had earlier scored on a one-yard run.

“We were playing the Number 1 team,” Buettner said. “They earned the win. They’re a very good team. We know we’re going to see them again, so we’ve got to clean some stuff up and be better the next time we play them.”

Buettner’s opposite number also pointed to the need for improvements, despite the lopsided nature of Saskatoon’s victory.

“There were a lot of flows to the game,” Walls said after throwing for 271 yards. “We made some mistakes. They made theirs and we capitalized on some of them.

“We’ve got a lot to work on to fix a lot of stuff that we did, but ultimately we’re happy with it.”

Walls was also pleased with the balanced nature of the win. The Hilltops benefited from key plays on offence, defence and special teams.

“It was a complete team win and that’s what we wanted, and I think that’s what we were expecting,” he said. “So to get it and have all three phases of the game play out not exactly how we wanted it, but it was there at times, it was good to see.”

Walls also enjoyed the final few seconds, during which he took a knee on the new Mosaic Stadium turf, with the Hilltops lined up in the victory formation.

“It was fun,” he said, smiling. “I think all the guys are happy at that moment. You know the game is over. The battle is over and you can just relax and take a breath, finally.”

The Hilltops are to return to action Aug. 20 against the host Winnipeg Rifles. Saskatoon’s home opener is Aug. 26 against the Ontario Football Conference’s Ottawa Sooners (7 p.m., Saskatoon Minor Football Field).

Saskatoon and Regina are to meet again Sept. 9, 7 p.m., at SMF Field.


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