The Hilltops were just too high a mountain to climb.
The Vancouver Island Raiders were defeated 38-28 on Saturday by the Saskatoon Hilltops in the Canadian Junior Football League’s Jostens Cup national semifinal at Caledonia Park.
The Raiders had a chance to win, as they took possession of the ball trailing 31-28 with two and a half minutes left. But the Hilltops didn’t let the Raiders drive; in fact the V.I. team was pushed backward and had to punt the ball out of its own endzone. By the time the Raiders got the ball back, they were down two scores with time dwindling.
“When you play good teams in football, you fight all game to give yourself a chance to try to win,” said Matthew “Snoop” Blokker, Raiders coach. “We had that chance. We had the ball, final drive and we didn’t get it.”
The game lived up to the hype. The crowd of 2,000 – including a contingent of blue-and-gold-clad Hilltops fans – saw the teams trade touchdowns and momentum all afternoon. Both teams had success with the ground game and both had their troubles completing passes, but the Hilltops came up with more timely completions.
“It was the battle everyone said it was going to be,” said Ranji Atwall, Raiders linebacker. “At the end of the day, they made a couple more plays than we did and when that happens, you’re going to fall short.”
Regan Schuler, Toppers tailback, scored three touchowns and said his team executed well, played disciplined football and won enough of the one-on-one battles in the trenches.
“We couldn’t have asked for a tougher test,” Schuler said. “They played us tough and it came down to the very end.”
The Hilltops opened the scoring midway through the first quarter on a two-yard run from Schuler, but the Raiders responded, driving the field and getting 10-yard TD run from Jordan Botel.
A Cole Bishop interception late in the first quarter set up a 20-yard field goal from Mark Mueller to start the second quarter, and Mueller then hit from 18 yards out. A four-yard TD from Schuler in the dying seconds of the half made it 14-13 Hilltops at recess.
The Raiders got the lead right back to start the third, as Glenn Boyce’s interception led to a 34-yard touchdown catch by Andrew Smith. The Toppers punched back with a passing TD of their own, then extended their lead when their quarterback Chase Bradshaw plunged in from a yard out late in the third quarter.
A Saskatoon field goal early in the fourth quarter made it a two-score football game for the first time, but Botel rushed the Raiders down the field and scored from eight yards out. V.I. quarterback Jordan Yantz made the two-point convert, then the Raiders got the defensive stop they needed, giving their offence one last chance.
“They made less mistakes, we made more,” said Botel. “They add up after awhile, and then you end up on your own five-yard line and you’ve got to try and punt the ball away.”
The Raiders know the game could have gone either way, but said there’s no point dwelling on what-ifs.
“You fight like hell and all you can do is learn from this,” said Blokker. “This team’s full of pride and there’s no quit … We battled, we fought and that’s all you can ask for.”
GRID BITS … Schuler was chosen Offensive Player of the Game, gaining 152 yards on 35 carries. The Hilltops’ Donovan Dale was Defensive Player of the Game with five tackles and two sacks and Saskatoon kicker Zach Schmidt was Special Teams Player of the Game … Yantz was 10-for-21 passing for 125 yards with one TD and one interception; Bradshaw was 11-for-24 for 209 yards, one TD and two INTs. Andrew Smith was V.I.’s top receiver with four catches for 58 yards. Botel ended up with 121 yards on 13 carries. Defensively, Dylan Chapdelaine led the Raiders with nine tackles and Boyce and Bishop had five each. For the Hilltops, Graig Newman made seven tackles and Braxton Lawrence had an interception … Injuries were a factor for the Raiders, as V.I. receiver Dustin Pedersen and defensive end Ash Gayat were both hurt in the third quarter. Atwall broke his hand early in the first quarter, though he played the rest of the game … The loss was the Raiders’ first defeat at Caledonia Park in more than six years.