Most people following football would have guessed three of the four Maple League playoff teams right in the spring. The reigning champions, Helsinki Roosters and the challengers from last two years, Seinäjoki Crocodiles and the Turku Trojans were almost a given to reach postseason. Vaasa Royals were also anticipated to play a strong inaugural season and have done just that. The decisive game for the last slot in the playoffs between the Royals and the Saints was dominated by the Royals ensuring them a chance to compete for the Championship title.
Regular season rankings: to predict the Maple League matchup and the winner based strictly on the regular season rankings can lead one wrong. In the last 15 years the #1 regular season team has won the Maple Bowl 7 times, less than half. In their current four championship streak the Roosters have placed 3rd twice then and won an away playoff game on their way to winning it all. The Crocodiles have won the ’regular season championship’ a whopping six times since their only Maple Bowl title so far in 2001 only to fall short every time.
The Trojans have also won the Maple Bowl only once in that time period, in 2003, after finishing second in the regular season. The fourth place team has not won a championship in the time period looked into here. The fourth team has advanced to the Maple Bowl only once, in 2006. However, the Trojans advanced to the Maple Bowl in 2014 after coming up from their one year Division 1 stint, whether that can be seen as a Maple Bowl berth for a newcomer is a bit questionable since the Trojans have been a household name in Finnish football through the whole history SAJL.
So, to try and predict the winners of next weekend’s games based on the statistical success of the past for top 4 is somewhat deceptive.
More often than not the whole business of winning in the playoffs has more to do with peaking at the right moment than anything else. Also, the injury list and last minute add-ons are significant. In this comparison the four playoff teams look different.
The Roosters would have crushed anyone in Finland were these games played early in the spring. They purposely peaked the first time to play a good international level game in April against the Innsbruck Raiders. The Roosters know what it takes to win the Maple Bowl, better than anyone else, and can without a doubt play better football this coming weekend than they’ve played over the course of last two months. However, the advantage they had with keeping their key American players in Finland through the offseason and running another year of their football program with a continuum has now somewhat diminished or at least changed with the rest catching on through months of games and practice. The Roosters key players have been rested during the season and they, again, look capable of playing their 2 best Maple League games of the season now when it matters.
The Crocodiles look stronger this year than they’ve looked, perhaps, ever. Their weakness in the past come the playoffs and the final has been a thin roster crippled by injuries towards the final stage and also in some years lack of talent in certain areas of play. This time they are stacked with talent and have reinforced their lineup through the whole season with quality import players. The Crocodiles also enjoy the advantage of having most of their last year’s key players back for a second attempt at the Championship. They enter the playoffs with the best roster situation in maybe last 10 years.
For the Trojans this season has been peculiar. Many thought their team would be very strong and a contender for the Maple Bowl. And some days the Trojans have appeared just that. However, the Roosters have beat them twice with ease through the course of the season and are heavy favorites to win the third meeting between the two this weekend. More on this later. Overall the Trojans appear a bit thin at certain positions but have brought in especially defensive players in the last month from France and Germany.
Vaasa Royals enter the playoffs with very little to lose and tons to win. Vaasa’s identity has changed a lot during the season, the run heavy and low scoring offense of the early season has gotten more versatile and better armed with the addition of high level WRs, whereas the rock hard defense of the early rounds has lost key players both for the season and temporarily leading to somewhat inconsistent performances on some days.
Before getting into what really matters, the players and the actual game, a look at the teams’ status might also serve the purpose of trying to predict the winners in the playoffs. First, these four teams are in the playoffs for a reason. They look better coached on the field than the others. The Roosters have a full staff with seasoned coaches across the board. The same staff, led by HC Juha Hakala, has been together for years, with some minor changes at the extend of responsibilities year in year out, and the Roosters are by far the most advanced team in Finland in accurate preparation and also game management. A special mention goes to DC Kalle Karppinen who has developed the Roosters defense into an almost surgical unit with text book team defense qualities. The Roosters’ organization as a whole has a tradition of success, they know how to win.
The Crocodiles seem to rely on their key players’ experience and apparently their coaching staff, led by HC Henri Kotanen, has wisely let the seasoned an skilled veterans to take power and responsibility in the schemes they run. The Crocodiles are the strongest team of last 15 years judged by the regular season rankings, they have made the playoffs in all but one of them. The monkey on their back is not about making it to the Maple Bowl but winning it.
The Trojans, led by HC Mikko Virolainen, have had some great days but also some games they might have wanted to take back and play again, coaching-wise. The Trojans are in the same boat with the Crocs, anything but the championship is a disappointment. It has been 13 years since they won the Maple Bowl.
The Royals have been improving as their coaching staff, led by HC Seppo Evwaraye, has succesfully brought the young team up to speed in the Maple League. The Royals are within their schedule, making the playoffs is already a good achievement, anything beyond that is a bonus. Like said, nothing to lose, everything to win.
All four teams have earned their way into the playoffs with quality work.
None of the above matters compared to the players’ sheer will to win, the ability to walk on the field to play the best football of the year now when it’s all on the line. To play through pain and injuries, to outwill and out hustle the opponent. That’s what the playoffs are all about.
Vaasa Royals (6-6) at Seinäjoki Crocodiles (11-1)
Facts first: the Crocodiles have beat the Royals twice this year and have the home field advantage. They are heavy favorites.
Both games between the two have been fairly tight, the Crocs have won by a total of 18 points, 16-6 in the first game that was very much a defensive bout and 32-24 in the second. The Crocodiles offense had 227 total yards in the first meeting and 379 in the second, the Royals numbers were 173 and 198. The Royals lost three key defensive players in the first rounds of the season, and that could partially explain the Crocodiles’ high numbers in the second meeting. On the other hand the Royals got their offense going scoring-wise in the second game, primarily through the addition of WRs Long and John who have been added during the season. We can expect both teams being able to move the ball on the other better than they did early in the season.
The Crocodiles can claim both games having been a bit ’sticky’ but still in control, the Royals have a case of stating that this time they will not miss their opportunities for a win.
Key players and matchups: this game features the two best quarterbacks in the Maple League this year. Yes, two. Justin Sottilare’s ( total offense 3174 yds, 259.3 per game) season has been near perfect at the wheel for the Crocodiles, their offense is fast-paced and Sottilare makes good fast decisions in both play selection and execution. He is a deadly accurate passer and eliminates most opponents’ blitzes and pass rush overall by getting the ball out before even a free rusher can get to him. A potential Maple League MVP.
But the Royals Isaac Fisher (2309 total yards, 237.6 per game) is really not that far behind, especially considering the somewhat different style of offense they run. He looks even more sound mechanically than Sottilare and has proven a threat both passing and running the ball. Sottilare is a game manager, Fisher is a soldier that could surprise everyone this coming weekend by putting on yet another gear in a playoff game. The Royals have molded their offense into a more pass oriented direction and Fisher definitely has the tools to deliver.
Crocodiles WR Tim Thomas has had a stellar year with 69 catches for 1010 yards and 12 TDs. Finding ways to slow Thomas down is a key element for the Royals in attempting to beat the Crocs. He is also a very dangerous KR/PR.
But look who’s back in the League, WR RJ Long of the Royals, 6 games (half of Thomas’ 12), 32 catches for 581 yards, 7 TDs. He has actually scored the second most points per game since his return, second only to Trojans RB Douglas. Long could be the surprise factor in the upcoming game, he is a true playmaker that the Royals have not yet used to the same extend that the 69rs did last year, allowing him to take a very average team to the playoffs then. Could he now be a key factor in taking a good team to the Maple Bowl? Long also brings considerable defensive speed and ball hawking to the Royals D at safety.
Royals LB Chris Young is deservedly the most talked about player in the Maple League this year. The Pro level defensive force has been every inch as good as expected and has dominated the field. Teams avoid his side but he is still second in tackles in the League and has most sacks and tackles for loss while always given extra attention. Can he get to the QB a fraction sooner than anyone else to disrupt the passing game of the Crocodiles? Will he play RB also in the decisive moments of the game, in the crucial short yardage situations? Will he play at an even higher level than previously now that it’s playoff time?
Spencer Cutlan is one of the heroes for the Crocodiles. Besides being one of the best WRs in the League (57 catches, 827 yards, 9 TDs) he is also a very reliable K/P and has provided game winning FGs both against the Trojans and the Roosters this year. Cutlan has a significant role in binding the Crocs opponent inside their 20 with his high precise punts.
Crocodiles recent import RB Stevie Strother is still a bit of a black horse in this game. After a very impressive first outing vs the Roosters the he was halted by the Trojans to 51 yards with a 1,9 average and it remains to be seen how he fares against the Royals defense that still defends the run well. Strother is very fast and shifty, and extra attention has surely been paid to stopping him in the Royals practices.
Some key national players:
Royals RB Tom Suoste (124 attempts, 805 yds, 6,5 avg, 67,1 yds/game) has played well for a first year national RB in the League. The Royals like to run the ball to set up the pass, and while Suoste may not have the around the edge speed for the outside run, he has improved on his reads and runs hard. FB Joakim Jakobsson is an important part of the Royals 2-back offense blocking for Suoste, protecting Fisher and occasionally catching the football. WR Phueng Nguyen completes the Royals WR group with quickness and ability to turn basic hitch or short curl routes into yardage. Royals CBs Rufail Khalifa and Emmanuel Amudeng have grown from boys to men during their first season, this draws an interesting comparison to the Crocodiles veteran CBs Tony Haukkamaa and Tuomas Leinonen, both pairs have defended a bunch of passes this year, a ‘they can already do that’ vs. a ‘they can still do that’. Crocodiles young LB Jaska Värinen has had a solid year, and DE Filip Zacok has established himself as one of the best d-linemen in the league. Safety Juhani Koivumäki has had an all star year.
Turku Trojans (7-5) at Helsinki Roosters (11-1)
Again, facts first: the Roosters have beat the Trojans twice this year and have the home field advantage. They are heavy favorites.
Both games between the two this year have been very one-sided with the Roosters’ winning first 38-7 and then 33-13 in the second round. The difference between the two games is in the Trojans’ total offensive yardage, in the first meeting they were held to 91 yards, in the second they gained a respectable 279. The Roosters racked up +400 yards with ease in both games.
The Trojans started the season with the Team Finland long time starter Miro Kadmiry at QB. Kadmiry’s shoulder issues put him aside and the Trojans brought in their current US QB Max Shortell. This obviously changed the structure of the Trojans’ offense significantly.
Either way, the Roosters have been even surprisingly superior to the Trojans in the two meetings, taking into account that the Trojans have had tight battles against the same teams that the Roosters have had their hands full, also.
The Roosters have had an interesting year in their QB play, also. Micah Brown has played sparingly, and his status remains somewhat of a mystery until the playoff game. He hasn’t run as much as he did towards the end of last year, and his capability of breaking 40+ yard runs escaping pressured pass situations has been one of his fortes. The Roosters have played their national QB Otso Flinkman quite some and Henri Väänänen a bit, which is invaluable for young players at the position. To add to the excitement the Roosters signed the super athletic returning QB Jabari Harris, who looked just as fast and capable as ever in the last regular season game against the Royals. RB Jaycen Spears played part-time also during the regular season, enabling national RBs Alexander Kuronen and youngster Karri Pajarinen to get valuable experience.
Brown will most likely be the starter this coming Sunday, and he and the Trojans Max Shortell are very different in style. Shortell is a tall tower-like passer, Brown is a relatively small-size athletic dual threat. Both teams have a scary US running back, Chris Douglas of the Trojans won the regular season rushing title, but Jaycen Taylor of the Rooster actually both outran him clearly in the two meetings between the teams and also edged him closely in yards per game total. Taylor has proven to be a beast in the playoffs before, Douglas’ fifth gear is yet to be witnessed.
Safety Curtis Slater has had a great year locking the Roosters defensive back end, Roman Runner of the Trojans is also still a force to be reckoned with. Where Runner faces some double duty playing bot O and D, the Roosters have WR Bernard Luster ready to again be a key factor in the playoffs. All in all, the Trojans’ Americans have been working hard for their money all year, whereas the Roosters have had the luxury of sparing their energy for these last two weeks of football.
All the statistics from the season are very well documented in the SAJL-pages. The big change for the reigning champions Roosters this year is that they really look like a power running football team with a rock hard defense instead of the pass happy Roosters that started their dominance four years ago.
Is there anything that could make this game considerably tighter than the previous two? Or, let alone lead to the Trojans marching past the Roosters to the Maple Bowl? Taking a Trojans perspective, there might. They have brought in new import players from France and Germany to reinforce their defensive front seven. Their QB Shortell now has a better grip onb what his team is and how the opponents play here. You can play the old runaround saying that the Crrocodiles beat the Roosters and that the Trojans veru much could have (or even should have?) beat the Crocs. None of this speculation matters, though.
To beat the Roosters the Trojans have to establish their running game. Chris Douglas is a fast athletic RB, but he can not run around the Roosters disciplined defense. Running between the tackles is a must. Also, WR Aappo Saloranta, Tuomas Mankki and H/FB Miko Ylikoski have to deliver. Shortell must hit the big passes that might get set up with movement and run threat, and more than anything else those balls should be caught. Roman Runner should get his chance to make plays on offense, too. The OL has to play the best game of the season and avoid the penalties that have stalled the Trojans offense through the whole year.
The Roosters defense is, like said many times, the best coached unit in Finnish football. Period. With the late addition of Innsbruck Raiders starter Roni Salonen the LB group now has capability in alla areas of play. Aleksi Aitala leads the DL that might not be as dominant allround as last year. The back four is solid, the corners are playing really well, no surprise there with the returned Pekka Rantala and a pleasant surprise with Akseli Olin whose primary position has been safety in the past. The Roosters do not give huge plays. They make you earn every point. That will be even more so in the playoffs.
The Trojans defense plays the run well led by LB Sami Toivonen, one of the hardest hitting players in the Maple League. Safety Ville-Valtteri Suojanen is a playmaker. So is Roman Runner. It is time now for others to step it up a notch to stop the Roosters. Especially the imported DL/LB should now start making a name for themselves in a hurry on Sunday. Or they won’t.
On the film clips and illustrations:
The examples gathered here represent the playoff teams only in their late season games. In the examples the Trojans play at the Crocodiles and the Royals at the Roosters. This creates some back and forth referring to the Offense and defense in the illustrations.
Run examples offense, defense
Trojans Toss :
– This is what the Trojans can not do vs the Roosters.
Roosters Zone Read/Inside Zone:
A good example of the Roosters OL blocking consistancy
Royals outside zone:
The Royals execute run plays well
Good play by Royals defense
Roosters QB Counter:
Good OL play, an effective change up in the running game
Pass examples, offense and defense:
Trojans ’Stretch’ PA:
A well built playaction pass play
Similar to the Trojans’ version with some different complimentary routes
Royals hitch´n go
A lost opportunity to score a big TD
Royals slot screen
An example of both Royals getting the ball out quickly and the Roosters D reacting fast
Crocodiles quick 1st down pass
An example of cushions making the defense a non factor
Crocodiles TD pass after turnover;
Again, the timing and accuracy of the Crocodiles eating the defense alive
Hitting the Crocodiles between and/or in front of the safeties, wrapping the OLB
Crocodiles Pre Snap decisions, defensive disguise:
Example of the cat and mouse play between O and D.