In nearly a decade of coaching, Anton Bellot said this year is the most excited he’s been to kick off a football season.
And the former Calgary Dino has plenty of reason to be fired up, as the now head coach of the Airdrie Irish men’s football team prepares his squad for their June 4 Alberta Football League (AFL) season-opener against the Central Alberta Buccaneers – the 2021 AFL champions, who knocked the Irish out of the playoffs in 2021.
According to Bellot, the Irish have already taken on the AFL's title-holder in an exhibition game this preseason, and managed to come out on top against the Bucs in Lacombe.
“We actually had an exhibition game with them May 7 and won 24-12, so we’re excited to see them in a full, four-quarter game,” he said. “It’s definitely going to be a good litmus test for our team right out the gate.”
Last year, the Irish made the AFL playoffs for the first time since 2017 as the league’s fourth seed thanks to a 1-3 regular-season record.
The team’s 77-32 victory over the Calgary Wolfpack marked Airdrie’s first AFL win since the 2018 campaign – they went winless in 2019, while the 2020 season was called off due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since ending their 2021 season in the first round of the playoffs, the Irish have had a productive off-season, according to Bellot, who took over the coaching reins last year after playing four seasons for the team, mostly as a linebacker.
He said the Irish's 2022 rebuild started with hiring an entire offensive coaching staff, including Stephen McLean as the offensive coordinator, Brent Schershel as offensive line coach, and Scott Sargent as wide receiver coach.
“All these gentlemen have played at extremely high levels,” Bellot said. “Adding those three pieces has not only done wonders for our offence in all positions, from quarterback, to receiver, to o-line, but it’s also done wonders for us in terms of [player] recruitment as well.”
In terms of new players Airdrie football fans can watch out for this summer, Bellot said he’s looking forward to seeing how local products Quinn MacDonald, Jacob Williams, and Xavier Dalton fare in their first seasons in the AFL.
The addition of Bert Church Chargers and George McDougall Mustangs alumni continue a priority of keeping the Irish roster as localized as possible, according to the head coach.
“The theme as always been to keep it in Airdrie,” Bellot said. “What we’ve said as a board and coaching staff is that we want to develop the talent here. We don’t want to go anywhere else – we want to keep as much of the talent locally within the community.”
While keeping the roster Airdrie-centric is the ultimate goal, Bellot added the team will also have an international recruit this year, in the form of linebacker Jakub Kalwasinski, who moved to Canada from Poland last year.
Meanwhile, Irish stalwarts James Balsdon, Connor Lutz – a University of Saskatchewan Huskies alumnus who leads the Irish in franchise rushing yards with 1,111 – and quarterback Josh Williams will also be back with the team this season.
“We’re excited for the opportunity to have an exciting year…to really showcase what Airdrie football and the Airdrie Irish are all about,” Bellot said. “We always want the community out there in full force to support the Irish and understand not only that our players are pretty local, but we’re also engaging the community…and doing everything right in the best way we can.”
The Irish’s season-opener on June 4 will kick off at 2:30 p.m. at the Ed Eggerer Athletic Park.