The Airdrie Irish are gearing up for their first-ever shot at the Alberta Football League (AFL) title.
The competitive men's football team beat the Edmonton Elite 35-15 on Saturday to clinch their place in the upcoming league championship game, which will be contested on Aug. 20 in Cold Lake.
According to the Irish's head coach Anton Bellot, Airdrie's 20-point victory in the semi-final came despite missing several starting players, showcasing the team's depth this season.
"We feel ecstatic, excited, humbled, blessed – you could use any of those adjectives to describe where we are," he said. "We talked about this from the beginning of the season, to have a 1-0 mentality every week. We never get too far ahead of ourselves, taking it one game at a time and preparing like we've always done."
While Airdrie was the first team to score at the game in Fort Saskatchewan, the Elite took a 14-12 lead into the second half.
In the second half, Airdrie regained the lead thanks to touchdowns from Max Cragg and Peter Enoka, both of whom nabbed their first TDs in an Irish jersey.
"Max came out from B.C. this year to play for the Irish," Bellot said. "He was a little rusty to start, but we've continued to work with him, both Steve MacLean and Scott Sargeant, to make sure we continue to develop him. He's been better week to week and I couldn't be prouder of him for his first touchdown in nine years.
"Peter, he has the heart of a champion. He's our primary kick-off returner and punt returner, and he's been working at his craft. To see him get his first touchdown is amazing and I couldn't be prouder of the young man. Amazing effort by him."
In the fourth quarter, Andrew Sennyah scored a field goal and long-time Irish stalwart James Balsdon tacked on an insurance TD to put the game out of reach for the Elite.
Defensively, Airdrie kept Edmonton at bay during the second half, allowing just a single point.
Coming off what is easily the biggest win of the franchise's history, the Airdronians will travel to northeast Alberta on Saturday for the AFL championship game against the host Cold Lake Fighter Jets.
It will be a tough match-up for the Irish – the Fighter Jets are the AFL's only unbeaten team this summer, and previously defeated Airdrie 41-15 during the regular season.
"We know that's the best team in the league – they're talented across the board and there's not a lot of weaknesses there," Bellot said of the upcoming battle. "We just have to make sure we're preparing [properly]."
Adding to the upcoming game's intrigue, the regular-season fixture between Airdrie and Cold Lake ended in an unsavoury manner that included a bench-clearing brawl by both teams at the game's conclusion. The after-game altercation resulted in an investigation into both teams' conduct and punitive measures being implemented by both teams.
"We took some internal discipline as a team, so that's where we looked at it," Bellot said. "From the league's perspective, there's nothing coming down. We very much disagree with that. It should have been looked at from a league perspective, but we did what we needed to do internally to make sure we're holding up to our standard, which is what we want."
As an additional incentive, the winner of the AFL championship game will host a national championship game in September against the champion of the Ontario men's football league.
Even though they were injury ravaged against the Elite, Bellot added the Irish will be at full-strength for the final.
"We're excited for the challenge," he said. "It's a very talented team up in Cold Lake. Being on the road is always a challenge, but we've been pretty good on the road so far. It's a great test for our program."
The chance to compete for a league title is certainly in stark contrast to the 2018 and 2019 seasons, when the Irish struggled to even field a complete roster for many games. In 2019, the Irish finished at the bottom of the AFL table with a winless record.
Bellot, who took over the coaching reins in 2021 after playing for the Irish in those tough seasons, said many people behind the scenes deserve credit for turning the team's fortunes around since then.
"Former players, past alumni...there's a community believing in one team, one mission," he said. "It's been really fun to see the community get more and more involved and get more notice within the community. Most of our roster is local and the players...always have smiles on their faces. They're committed and want to continue to get better.
"We told the guys last year in Red Deer. I made them a promise that we'll get this right. We'll do what it takes to get it right and I think we've been successful in that promise. I couldn't be prouder of this group of individuals, both the players on and off the field and the community support from across Airdrie."