Thursday, September 9, 2021

Hilltops make long-awaited return to SMF Field

By Darren Steinke
Gordie Howe Sports Complex

The Hilltops celebrate a CJFL title win in 2018.
The last time the Saskatoon Hilltops graced the turf at Saskatoon Minor Football Field they were making yet another memorable moment.

On October 27, 2019, the storied Canadian Junior Football League club downed the visiting Edmonton Huskies 30-14 to capture the Prairie Football Conference championship. The Hilltops proceeded to march onward from there to captured their 22nd CJFL title in team history.

That encounter with the Huskies marks the last time the Hilltops played a game at SMF Field as the 2020 CJFL season was cancelled due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic that has gripped the world.

The Hilltops make their long-awaited return to SMF Field on Saturday, September 11, taking on their provincial rivals the Regina Thunder at 7 p.m. The will be a battle of teams that both sport 2-0 records so far in the CJFL regular season.

Legendary Hilltops head coach Tom Sargeant said his team is pumped to be back in action.

“It is just awesome to be back here,” said Sargeant. “It is awesome to be around my coaches and my players.

“It is such a good vibe and such a good feel. We have a lot of rust. We have lots of things we have to get better at.

“There is lots in front of us. We have the right kids here. We’re ready to develop this team and take it to great places.”

The Hilltops have played most to almost all of their home games at SMF Field since 1960, when the stadium was originally called the Holiday Park Bowl. 

The Hilltops raise the Canadian Bowl in 2015.
They have won 19 of their 22 CJFL championships since they started playing their home games at SMF Field.

The Hilltops have won the last six straight CJFL titles before the circuit went on hiatus in 2020. During that run of six straight titles, two of those championship wins came on the grounds of SMF Field.

In 2015, the Hilltops hosted the CJFL title game – the Canadian Bowl - downing the Kelowna, B.C., based Okanagan Sun 38-24. That contest was played on the new field turf that was install prior to the start of the 2014 season, and both clubs were able to use the dressing rooms at the nearly completed Gordie Howe Sports Centre building.

In 2018, the Hilltops won the Canadian Bowl again dumping the Langley Rams 58-21 at SMF Field to complete a perfect 11-0 campaign. This marked the first CJFL title game played at SMF Field where all the renovations and improvements at the facility had been completed.

In 2020, the Hilltops gathered for practice for six weeks in September and October at Ron Atchison Field.

When the 2021 CJFL season was given the green light to go, the Hilltops couldn’t wait to get back into game action.

“It feels great,” said fifth-year left tackle Mason Ochs, who is a three-time CJFL all-Canadian all-star. “It has been too long.

“It almost kind of felt like it was never coming back after you lose 2020. I didn’t even know if that was my last game in 2019 there. It couldn’t be better to be back.”

The Hilltops enter their home opener with linebacker Emmarae Dale on their roster.

Jared Giddings makes an interception for the Hilltops in 2018.
Dale has been a familiar face for a long time on the Gordie Howe Sports Complex grounds. Before joining the Hilltops, Dale starred for the Saskatoon Valkyries, who are a powerhouse club in the Western Women’s Canadian Football League, from 2016 to 2019.

She helped the Valkyries win two WWCFL titles in 2016 and 2019.

Dale also works at the front desk and is a strength and conditioning coach at Ignite Athletics.

The former member of the University of Saskatchewan Huskies women’s track and field team was added to the Hilltops roster last year.

On August 22, she became the first female player to play in a CJFL regular season game as the Hilltops downed the Edmonton Huskies 18-17 at Jasper Place Bowl in Edmonton, Alta. Dale had a special teams tackle in the win.

“It was pretty surreal,” said Dale. “I think it was just such a long time coming that it is kind of weird to think that it has already come and gone.

“It was the first game back since COVID. I think everyone is still just kind of getting the rust off after such a long wait, but it was awesome being there. I think even when I was just first putting on the shoulder pads and the Hilltops jersey it definitely kind of hit me that it was going to be a big game and very meaningful game.

“It was really awesome. It was definitely exciting and humbling. It was just a lot of emotions just kind of wrapped into one I think.”

After going through 2020 without a regular season, Hilltops fifth-year defensive back Jared Giddings said there is a renewed appreciation for the chance to take part in practices and game. Giddings said there were times where he wasn’t sure if he would get to play his fifth and final season with the team.

Along with Ochs and right tackle Jonathan Chisholm, Giddings is one of three players who are playing a fifth full season with the Hilltops in 2021. Giddings has always appreciated being part of the storied Hilltops, but he admits his spark for playing a season has been renewed.

A sign at SMF Field lists the Hilltops CJFL title wins
“Football is a grind, and sometimes coming to practice isn’t easy,” said Giddings. “Honestly, it is all just a little bit easier now.

“When we were off, you don’t know what is happening. You don’t know what is going to happen next. Every day, it is like it is a blessing.

“I don’t mind coming to practice and getting bruised up a bit and hitting some guys. It is a lot of fun. I think it brought the fun back into football for me personally.”

For more information about the Saskatoon Hilltops, feel free to check out their website at