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Airdrie Irish's season comes to an end

The Airdrie Irish’s post-season came and went in a flash.

Just two days after learning the team would feature in the Alberta Football League (AFL) playoffs, Airdrie lost 31-14 to the Calgary Wolfpack, Aug. 17 at Shouldice Athletic Park.

The loss – Airdrie’s ninth of the 2019 season – means the Irish went winless for the first time in the program’s five-year history.

“We didn’t win a single game throughout the season, but we definitely showed we are a hardcore team,” wide receiver Denzel Nolet said. “We may not be the best, but we work hard, do as much as we can and we’re here for each other – win or lose.”

Despite finishing at the bottom of the five-team AFL standings, the Irish qualified for the playoffs after the top-seeded Cold Lake Fighter Jets was stripped of its post-season eligibility. According to an Aug. 15 statement from the league, Cold Lake was disqualified for contravening the league’s Compensation Act, which forbids payment or financial assistance for players.

With just two days to prepare, the Irish only managed to field a squad of 21 players for the match-up. That meant, some players had to feature on both offence and defence, as well as on special teams.

“Everyone played hard and did really good, especially on short notice,” said right guard Chad Moore. “I got the phone call Thursday morning, so I wasn’t expecting to come out and play.

“For our efforts, I think we did very well.”

The Wolfpack, which ended the regular season in second place with a 5-3 record, dominated the game’s early proceedings. The home team took a 17-0 lead in the first half via a field goal from Lance Vilmair in the opening quarter, and touchdown catches from Zach Welten and Dylan Minschull in the second.

Airdrie struggled to sustain offensive drives, repeatedly resorting to punting the ball out of its defensive zone on third down, which offered the Wolfpack plenty of opportunities to attack.

Calgary showed no signs of taking its foot off the gas in the second half, as Airdrie’s players began to tire. Welten managed his second touchdown to bring the score to 24-0 in the third quarter, before Tyler Shaver made it 31-0 with an easy jaunt into the end zone.

Down by 31 points in the fourth frame, the Irish’s playoff hopes were going down in flames. But a positive drive finally brought the visitors to within scoring range. With six minutes left, running back Connor Lutz pushed the ball into the end zone for Airdrie on a second-and-goal to avoid the shutout.

Lutz’s touchdown breathed new life into the Irish, and the visitors wasted no time in recording a second TD. On Airdrie’s next possession, receiver James Balsdon scampered into the end zone on a 45-yard catch-and-run to make it 31-12.

“We went into the locker room, discussed a few things and came out to try some new plays,” said quarterback Darius Smith. “That play just happened to work.”

The Irish was successful on the two-point conversion, with Sam Hanei catching Smith’s pass to cut the deficit to 17 points.

With time running out, however, a comeback was never truly in the cards.

“We all bound together as a team,” Moore said of the Irish’s strong finish. “We pick each other up and keep fighting until the end.”

Moore added the Irish players didn’t want to use the small game-day roster as an excuse.

“I was always coached that it doesn’t matter how many players you have on the team – it’s about heart and how much you can grind it out,” he said. “It’s nice to have a bunch of guys out there, but you have to battle with what you’ve got. You only need 12 guys to play.”

The Wolfpack will take on the Central Alberta Bucanneers Aug. 24 in Calgary for the AFL championship.

“I guess we just have to look towards next year,” Smith said.