Last November, the stands that were usually home to the stamping feet of winter-worn Canadian Junior Football League fans were barren.
But on Sunday, the Regina Thunder will host the Saskatoon Hilltops at Mosaic Stadium for a battle of Saskatchewan — a return to the electric CJFL football playoffs for fans and a long-awaited trophy run for the Prairie Football Conference's strongest teams.
The all-Saskatchewan conference final was set last weekend, when the Hilltops defeated the Edmonton Huskies and the Thunder downed the Winnipeg Rifles. The winner of Sunday's game will advance to the CJFL national semi-final in B.C.
The game has been a long time coming for CJFL fans in Saskatchewan. In August 2020, the junior league called off its regular season and playoffs.
That began an unusual and extended off-season for the 18-team CJFL and presented a challenge for John Tokar, the athlete development co-ordinator for the Thunder.
"We knew that this was going to be tough and we really wanted to come out of COVID a better team than we … [were] going into COVID," he told CBC's Peter Mills.
The Thunder developed a leadership team of about 10 to 15 players in the program whom other players look up to, Tokar said, and researched how to foster team environment.
He also got in touch with Regina-born Stanley Cup and Olympic champion Ryan Getzlaf, and the team bought each player a book called Legacy about the All Blacks, New Zealand's world-renowned rugby team.
Rylan Sokul, recently named the Prairie conference's most valuable player, said it's been the best team environment since joining the team in 2018. The Thunder are a family, he said.
"Our dressing room just has a different feel to it this year and definitely a championship atmosphere in there," he said.
Whether it was Tokar's program, team chemistry or another off-season strategy from the Thunder, the team ran through the regular season undefeated, overtaking the Hilltops in both regular season bouts by a thin three-point margin.
But the Hilltops have been collecting championships in bulk. They've earned six-straight national titles, including 2019's, and nine in the past decade.
"They're gelling, they're coming together, and the best team I'm going to put on the field will be the team I'm putting on the field this weekend," Hilltops head coach Tom Sargeant said.
"And it's coming at the right time because … we're playing the Regina Thunder, who haven't lost a game yet and are playing great football."
While the pandemic has been an awkward pivot for the 24-year head coach, it also brought historical change to the team's lineup.
Emmarae Dale, the first female player to ever suit up for a CJFL team, will be a part of her first conference championship on Sunday.
Dale said she's received consistent messages of support from fans, players and coaches as a trailblazer for other women football players.
"There are girls that came up to me and wanted to get their picture taken with me after games and stuff, and I was even told that there were girls at one game that had signs with my name and number on it," Dale said.
Sunday's game at Mosaic Stadium kicks off at 1 p.m. CT.