Prospects put to the test at camp
Football team gets help from pandemic re-load, preps for main training camp
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Saskatoon Hilltops are actually ahead of the game.
Facing a major rebuild after their last championship title in November 2019, the six-time defending Canadian Bowl champions took advantage of an extended wait while their pandemic pause played out.
It gave the Toppers extra time to slowly reload.
They waited two years to once again hold a spring camp. They did just that over the Father's Day weekend, donning full pads for a full-blown camp with all players — not just small groups — together in attendance at once.
“It was the most normal thing I've done in 16 months, so it just felt right,” said Hilltops head coach Tom Sargeant. “It was good. Coaches were fired up. Players had good energy. You bet, it was a good weekend.
It left the longtime head coach gushing over the assembly of young prospects and what appears, once again, to be a bright future.
“We had a year to rebuild that thing and now we're ready to fly 100 miles an hour,” said Sargeant, who is back in charge for yet another season.
“As I've said, we can't lose sight. We're actually chasing No. 7 (straight Canadian Bowl titles) right now, so that's pretty cool.”
Just when they needed it the most, the Hilltops are fortunate to have two recruiting classes — 2020 and 2021 high school graduates — to pick from.
They've had more time to address areas of need.
“We knew what our weaknesses were,” noted Sargeant. “We attacked them and that's where we spent a lot of our time and energy. As I've said, I like where we're at. The issue is I still don't know where everyone else is at yet right now.
“Time will tell.”
HILLTOPS' TOP CAMP PROSPECTS
Following spring camp, the Hilltops once again presented an award for their top new prospect. This year, they had two years' worth and two award winners.
Rush end Riece Kack, a 2020 high school graduate from Saskatoon's Centennial Collegiate who was initially recruited by the University
of Saskatchewan Huskies, and Boden Marley, a receiver from the Greenall High School Griffins, were named top newcomers.
Marley, who also graduated from high school in 2020, is from Balgonie.
All in all, Sargeant liked what he saw.
“A great camp,” he said. “We've been able to upscale our roster in a whole bunch of areas where the talent is as good as we've seen. We had to make some tough decisions, but we believe we're very gifted. We're very athletic and, as long as we can handle the physical ends of the game, this is going to be a very dynamic football team.”
Sargeant added that camp was “really a culmination of six weeks of work that we've done” after staggered training sessions heading into it.
The coaching staff was also left with a staggering number of prospects to evaluate. Two years worth there, too.
“We made some roster moves even before we got to this,” noted Sargeant. “Now, they've got six more weeks to get bigger, stronger, faster.”
Next up for the Toppers is their main training camp, which opens Aug. 9 with up to 100 players.
“We're pretty close already,” said Sargeant, adding they'll be keeping 92 players.
“We brought a few players back if they want the opportunity, on the outside looking in. We might show up with 100 but we'll get down to the 92 in a short period of time.”
The Prairie Football Conference held its scheduling meeting Monday night.
Sargeant said he's hopeful the PFC will kick off Aug. 22 with the Hilltops' home-opener that day.
“You look at where Alberta is (with COVID restrictions being lifted) and you look at where we (in Saskatchewan) are at. Outside of Winnipeg (home of the PFC'S Rifles), that's 80 per cent of the league (ready to go).”
It was the most normal thing I've done in 16 months, so it just felt right. It was good.