Talented ‘Toppers tough test for Thunder

Opening day is like present-opening day for Regina Thunder head coach Scott MacAulay.

In a sense, it feels like Christmas.

“It does,” MacAulay says in advance of Saturday’s regular-season opener against the visiting Saskatoon Hilltops.

“There’s a whole stress level getting up to Christmas, buying those presents and everything. I think it’s the same thing with training camp — trying to be here as much as you can and putting in as much time and effort as you can, and also trying to balance the home and work life. All our guys are volunteers, from players to the coaches.

“With training camp and the whole thing, it’s fun to get football going and get on the field, but it’s also a highly stressful time as well. When you get that first kickoff, it’s time to be able to feel good about it and enjoy the moment, so I’m looking forward to the kickoff and knowing that the season’s finally here.”

The anticipation is also felt by the players, such as quarterback Sawyer Buettner.

“When football season comes around, it’s awesome,” the third-year pivot says with a smile. “Everybody is super-excited and ready to have fun on Saturday, so it will be a good time.”

And a good test, to put it mildly.

The Thunder is preparing to face a team that has won six of the past seven PFC and CJFL championships. The only interruption in the Hilltops’ remarkable run of success came in 2013, when Regina punctuated MacAulay’s first season as head coach by winning the Canadian Bowl.

“I think playing the Saskatoon Hilltops in the first game is going to be an eye-opener for a lot of players on our team,” MacAulay says. “It’s also going to be a great measuring stick.

“I’m looking forward to it. We’re going to see exactly where we are in the standings on Day 1. The other thing, too, is that we’re going to know exactly what we need to do to make changes to move forward.”

The Thunder would like to change its fortunes against Saskatoon, given the manner in which the hard-fought season series played out in 2016.

Saskatoon won two regular-season nailbiters, prevailing 20-18 at home and 30-26 in Regina, before edging the visiting Thunder 25-24 in a semi-final.

“(The Hilltops) are a great team and they’ve got a great tradition, so it’s obviously going to be lots of fun and it will test where we’re at,” Buettner says.

“We had a lot of close games with them last year and we have a lot of returning players that have those memories from last year. At the same time, we’ve got a lot of new guys bringing in some new life, so we’re excited to take them on in Game 1.”

Kickoff is set for 7 p.m., at Mosaic Stadium. Tickets will be available at Gate 1, located on the southwest side of the new facility — where the Thunder is to play for the first time.

rvanstone@postmedia.com

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