There have been a lot of franchise firsts for the Airdrie Irish competitive men's football team in 2022, and another one is just around the corner.
Airdrie's local Alberta Football League (AFL) squad will host a post-season game for the first time in franchise history on Aug. 6, when they take on the Central Alberta Buccaneers at Ed Eggerer Athletic Park to open the 2022 playoffs.
Head coach Anton Bellot said the players and coaches are excited to continue what has already been a historic campaign for the Irish, who ended the regular season in third place in the seven-team league with a 4-1-1 record.
“It’s what we’ve worked for, definitely,” Bellot said, of the opportunity to take on the Central Alberta Buccaneers in the first round of the six-team playoffs. “Everyone is taking it seriously. We’ve had a 1-0 mentality from the beginning of the year, so our preparation doesn’t change.
“But we need to make sure the guys realize this is a first in franchise history. It’s something we don’t want to take for granted. We’ll prep the same way [as usual] but with more of an edge, because playoffs are a different time of year.”
The Irish ended with the same record as the Edmonton Elite, but the capital city team was awarded second place based on the AFL's tie-breaker protocol of having scored more total points throughout the season. Had Airdrie been awarded second place, they would have received a bye through the first round of playoffs.
The Irish book-ended the regular season with an emphatic 46-8 victory over the Fort McMurray Monarchs on July 23. The road-trip win marked the first time the Irish has beaten the Monarchs in Fort McMurray and the first time Airdrie ended the AFL regular season with a win/loss record above .500, according to Bellot.
Despite missing a few key players, including the injured running back Connor Lutz, Bellot said the Irish put forward a confident team performance in Fort McMurray, setting the tempo early and not letting their foot off the gas.
The Irish's Facebook page states Airdrie's offence was led by Braxton Hyland and Jacob Williams, who caught three touchdown passes. On defence, BK Matuat Samuel, Ty Bessette and Marcus Sapsford stifled the Monarchs offence, keeping the hosts to just a single touchdown.
“We were missing a few key guys on both sides of the ball – specifically in the secondary – but we had some young guys step up,” Bellot said.
“On offence, Josh Williams finding Jacob has always been a good connection, our running game has been a strength all year, and Braxton Hyland and Marshall have really stepped up in Connor’s absence, he said.
“On defence, we continue to play our team defence and have an energy to it. We could tell pretty early in the first quarter that we had a little more energy and focus.”
While the Buccaneers are the AFL's defending champions, their 2022 campaign has been more of a rebuild. The Red Deer-based team went 1-5 during the regular season, just squeaking into the playoffs as the lowest seed.
The Irish has already taken on Central Alberta twice this year, beating the Buccaneers 31-22 in the season-opener on June 4, as well as defeating them in a modified preseason game in Lacombe.
However, Bellot stressed the Irish won't be taking the upcoming battle lightly when the Bucs return to town this Saturday.
“I don’t look at the record, I look at the quality of team and that’s a very tough first-round match-up,” he said. “But we’re not going to shy away from a challenge and this is a great test for the program.”
The Aug. 6 playoff game will get underway at 4:30 p.m. at Ed Eggerer Athletic Park. Tickets are $10 at the gate.
Bellot said he hopes to see plenty of Airdrie's football fans in the stands.
“There’s a lot to celebrate,” Bellot said. “It’s been a historic season for us and something we’re really proud of. But we’re not satisfied yet. We continue to get better week after week, and we want to hopefully compete in the championship game.”