BY ZACHARY CORMIER
The cold and rainy weather in Lacombe last Saturday night almost poetically mirrored the mood on the Central Alberta Buccaneers’ bench at the conclusion of the Alberta Football League championship game at M.E. Global Athletic Park.
After a stellar regular season and a gritty semi final victory, the Bucs’ undefeated season came to a screeching halt last weekend after a devastating 32-23 home field loss at the hands of the visiting Fort McMurray Monarchs.
Despite a strong first half effort and perhaps a stronger one in the second half, the Bucs just weren’t able to overcome the Monarchs’ all-star offense to claim their first ever AFL championship.
“I think we got tired. That’s the part that’s challenging about three and out football when you play it like a power running team. They have by far the best, in my opinion, skilled player in the league in (running back) Melvin Abankwah. He’s absolutely spectacular. And once you start wearing down and he gets bigger creases he’s going to get his yards,” said Bucs’ Head Coach Devon Hand after the loss.
Right from the opening kick, it became apparent that both teams were going to have to battle for every single point in the matchup between the AFL’s two best teams.
It was the Monarchs who would draw first blood in the back and forth affair as their special teams unit forced the Bucs to concede a single point on a touch back before forcing them back into their own end zone for a safety to give them a 3-0 lead after the first 15 minutes of the game.
But the home team wouldn’t be held down for long as their defense came roaring onto the field in the second quarter and shut down Fort Mac’s high-powered offensive unit, opening the doors for the pirate crew’s AFL-leading passing game to come to the fore.
Despite the pouring rain making completions difficult to come by, Buccaneers’ quarterback Brandon Leyh and his core of talented receivers were able to get the air game working, connecting with Josh Blanchard and Axsavier Lawrence for a touchdown apiece to take a 14-4 lead into halftime.
But that’s where the dominance would end for the Bucs. The Monarchs came out of the field house for the third quarter as a team on a mission.
It didn’t take long for Fort Mac’s devastating running game to start taking its toll on the Buccaneers’ defensive line and after a controversial fumble in the red zone by the Monarchs was called back, the visitors quickly put up six points to close the gap.
On the other side of the ball, the Bucs started to suffer some injury woes on their offensive line, a weakness that Fort Mac’s defense was quick to exploit.
“We protected really well early but then we lost a couple of guys and they were able to get some extra pressure on Brandon,” Hand said.
After a quick Buccaneer field goal on the ensuing drive, the Monarchs’ offense set to work once more, gutting the home side’s defense time and again on the ground before pounding the ball into the end zone to draw even.
That brought it all down to the fourth and final quarter and man what a quarter it was. The Bucs threatened to blow the game wide open early on thanks to a huge reception and run by Lawrence, which punched in six points.
But a missed conversion opened the door for Fort Mac to take the lead in the dying minutes of the game and it was an opportunity they weren’t going to miss. They quickly marched down the field and scored a TD of their own, adding the conversion for good measure.
The final nail in the coffin for the Bucs came in the final five minutes when a desperate pass by Leyh was picked off by Pascal Tshilambo and returned for six points to seal the deal. Final score – 32-23.
“We just ran out of gas at the end. I’m proud of our guys and how we stuck together this game,” Hand said, adding he expects the team to continue to improve over the coming seasons so they can ultimately challenge for a national title.
“We’ve come a long ways in two short years. We have a nice foundation. Hopefully we can retain our big name recruits and our local guys keep coming back and we can build and get momentum.<spa