The bus departed at nine in morning, and entered Saskatchewan a few hours later. Filled with young men, many playing the first serious playoff game of their life, the tour bus glided smoothly over the winding stretch of prairie highway. The sky was clear. The landscape rippled with hills that rolled on top of bigger hills that stretch out to a distant horizon. Streams and rivers carve out great gashes in the soft ground to form the great coolies. It’s a land that mimics the desert dunes.
Once you get north of Regina, the landscape takes on this face, and it’s one that’s quite different from the vast, great plateau that is south central Manitoba. This is the land where horses and bison once ruled.
The Winnipeg Rifles are in Saskatoon to face the Hilltops—a team that’s had their number for quite a while—after going four for four in the regular season and clawing their way to a playoff berth with a huge three game winning streak to cap off their most successful season since 2011.
The long bus ride in was calm. Players were at ease and cracking jokes, as one might expect from a group of 18 to 24-year-olds.
“Never trust an o-lineman when it comes to food,” said one player. “Like, why eat tacos on a bus.”
Another specifically requested Titanic for the in-flight movie. When he was denied, The Notebook was his backup.
The players looked cool and collected in the team walk-through upon entering Saskatoon, many of them showing off their one-handed grab skills. Some were warming up by playing ‘the knee game,’ which is, essentially, trying not to have your knee slapped by anyone else around you.
But coach Park has a booming voice, one that let’s you know when it’s time to get serious. And he’s not afraid to use it to keep his players in line and focused.
Once arriving at the hotel, the players checked into their rooms and then went down for a team dinner where hats are outlawed, and food is dished out in military-like order, starting with coaches and trainers.
After dinner, the coaches and coordinators went through some game film with their titans. The defensive coordinator asked his men what they were afraid of. One player replied, “dying,” another, “snakes.”
“No one’s afraid of the Hilltops,” said the coordinator. “They’re just dudes in football pads, no one’s afraid of them.”
The Rifles are cocked, loaded and ready to do battle on the gridiron tomorrow. But their opponents are one the best amateur football teams in the country. The Rifles have been playing great football of late. Their running game has been nothing short of stellar, with running back Michael Richott finishing second in the PFC with 801 yards. Their defense is solid and the Rifles own top spot in the PFC in picks with 6 from Braedy Will.
But the Hilltops have beaten the Rifles twice in consecutive weeks early on in the regular season, outscoring them 115-17.
Tomorrow, the Rifles play the biggest game of their lives so far.