The Maple League is not the only football being played in Finland. This weekend, the semi-finals for the 1st Division of the SAJL (Finnish American Football League) take place.
I had the opportunity to speak to some of the coaches and players involved in this weekend’s matchups.
Helsinki Wolverines (#1) vs Jyväskylä Jaguars (#4)
Perfect: The Wolverines have the #1 offense in Divison 1 in Finland, who or what can that accomplishment be attributed to?
Head coach Robert Johnson: The reason why we are number 1 in offense is because everybody has bought into the system. Jerell Jones and Locklin Gilbert have played really well in this system. Marcus Siiskonen, Teemu Rantanen, and Niko Hannula, all Finnish players have gotten better every game. The O-line has done a pretty good job with protecting Janne Lehtinen who has got the ball out to different players like this offense should be ran. So overall it’s been everybody.
Perfect: You have outscored the Jaguars 121-10 in your previous meetings, do you expect this playoff game to be much of the same?
Robert Johnson: No, I don’t expect the same. Its playoff time so i know they will bring it. They will come out physical like they did the last game we played. It was a closer game than it looked, and what people don’t know is that they played us tight in the first half.
Perfect: You guys have not beaten the Wolverines all season, what can we expect to see differently in this playoff matchup?
Offensive coordinator/WR Pasi Raatikainen: The Jaguars has been relying strongly on their rushing offense this season. One reason for this has been the fact that the receiving group has been struggling with injuries, and also the changes on the quarterback position has been affecting the passing play efficiency. In the previous game though, the Jaguars started to look a lot better with the passing game, and young quarterback Teemu Hautakangas looked much more confident throwing the ball.
If the Jaguars are able to stay versatile with their offense against the Wolverines, they have a shot make the game tight. Defending against the Wolverines isn’t going to be easy either, and there will be some points scored on the Jaguars. Therefore the offense needs to be able to answer those points and keep the offensive weapons of the Wolverines on the sideline. The Jaguars are going to be an underdog in this game, but are eager to show their best football yet this season.
Perfect: What key players for Jyväskylä will help determine if you guys pull off the upset or not?
Pasi Raatikainen: Key players from the offensive side of the ball are quarterback Teemu Hautakangas and running back Joni Kähönen. From defense, key players are the veteran linebacker Sami Mäkinen and AJ McCrea.
Hämeenlinna Huskies (#2) vs Kuopio Steelers (#3)
Perfect: Heading into the playoffs at the #2 seed, how do you feel about your chances to advance to the Division 1 finals in Finland?
Head coach/QB Stan Bedwell: We feel confident. Back in May, I came to visit the team one week before they kicked off the regular season at Helsinki. I told them that all they would read that week was how this was the “game of the year” in the 1st division. I told them not to buy into the hype, because our season would not be defined by how we start, it will be defined by how we finish. We came out on the short end in that game, but since then we’ve won every game. It’s our intention and expectation to win the next two as well.
Perfect: The Huskies have the #1 defense in the league this year, who or what can that accomplishment be attributed to?
Stan Bedwell: I think it’s a total team effort. It’s really hard to find a weakness in our defense from a personnel standpoint. Archie Barnes has been phenomenal this season, but he has a great group of guys around him. Our secondary has been excellent against the pass, our defensive line has improved every single game, and I’d take our Linebacker corp over any in the league. Our defensive coaching staff of Juha-Matti Jokinen, Antti Silvola, and Jarmo Haavisto have done a great job this year. If the old saying “Defense Wins Championships” is a true statement, then I’d say we have a pretty good shot.
Perfect: The Steelers took you to overtime last time you faced each other, what will you differently this time around to prevent the late game drama?
Stan Bedwell: The Steelers are very aggressive on defense. Their defensive line is very, very good. Jani Lindqvist is a great player. Last game we played them, we suffered because we did not have a center on our gameday roster. We had to move our starting Right Tackle A-P Reinikainen to center and it started a domino effect from both a personnel and timing standpoint. This really effected me on a personal level and I was unable to overcome it and play at the level I needed to for our offense to be successful. All credit goes to our defense and special teams for keeping us in the game, and luckily we made just enough plays on offense to come out on top. We are as healthy now as we have been all season. Our center Drenit Mulaj is back and playing well, so I do not anticipate the timing issues we had last game. We’ve worked hard to correct our mistakes since the last time we’ve played them and we feel confident that we can come out on top as long as we execute our gameplan and stick together as a team.
Perfect: What Huskies players should we expect to see big performances from during this game?
Stan Bedwell: From an offensive standpoint, it’s really hard to say. Ottopekka Leskinen, Asko Mantymaki, and Jani Heinisalo have all led our team in receiving in different games this season. Velipekka Jaakonsaari and Xavier Ajuwon have both had big games for us in the backfield. I think it’s exciting to see which guy will step up and lead us each week. Defensively, I believe our entire secondary deserves credit. Aku Kattainen and Sami Haantaus have been great at cornerback. Mika Kulmala, Nicholas Madsen, and Tatu Niemi are our safeties and they consistently make big plays for us.
Mikko Isokaanta will return this week as well. He is one of the most talented guys on our roster and I expect big things from him after a two month break. It will also be fun to see how our dual-passport linebacker Kevin Duley performs after having a few weeks to work with the team. Lastly, I think it’s worth pointing out that our kicker Tomi Jokinen has the ability to put points on the board and I probably have not given him enough opportunities to do that this season. He’s a guy that is really consistent for us in the kicking game and I expect him to be a weapon for us in the playoffs.
Perfect: The last time you played the Huskies you lost in overtime, what will you do differently this game to change the outcome?
Head coach Pekka Utrianen: We have to limit the big plays. If we keep everything in front of us we will be able to force the Huskies into mistakes. We have playmakers in every level of our defense to make big plays. Last time, the Huskies got a couple big plays which we have to deny this time. On offense we have all the tools, just have to execute better. We have been battling with injuries on our offensive backfield which have limited our practice reps, but now it looks like we are gonna get guys back to the practice field, that will be big for us.
Perfect: How much does being the underdog in this game inspire your players to prove people wrong?
Pekka Utrianen: Being a team without imports, we certainly are the underdog against all teams really. Nothing comes easy for us, everybody has to do their best to win a game, let alone against these top teams in our division. I don’t think I have ever been in a team that is as much a TEAM as this one, no need for us coaches to preach about team play here, guys already know it. Certainly we are on a mission right now, we want to show a lot of people wrong about our decision to not bring in US players. Right now it’s a great thing to be wearing a Steelers jersey, what an opportunity to make great things happen.
Perfect: What Steelers players do you expect to show up and make the big plays this week?
Pekka Utrianen: We have a couple of extremely hot guys on out defensive line, defensive tackle Jani Lindqvist and defensive end Sami Hovinen, which we hope they make big plays in the playoffs too. We have an experienced defensive backfield as a whole, guys like linebacker Juuso Laherma and safety Toni Hartikainen have delivered big plays often this year. On offense are out young guns. Petteri Vilpponen and Tino Ndongo have gotten comfortable making huge plays in the first division, by either catching, running or returning the ball. Running back Tuomas Räsänen has made a huge leap from earlier this season and is a force to be reckoned with in the run game. We will likely have our big dude, wide receiver Sami Kuosmanen back for the semifinal game too, so we will have the physical presence in our passing game as well.
Good luck to all four teams!
In my personal opinion, this weekend will feature some great players and coaches competing for success. I look forward to seeing how things shake out, and wish each team the best in their pursuit of a Division 1 Championship.