For the first time in their history, the Airdrie Irish men's football team was awarded the Alberta Football League’s (AFL) Organization of the Year title.
Airdrie’s head coach, Anton Bellot, said it was a privilege for the Irish to be recognized by the rest of the five-team league’s council during the AFL’s year-end awards ceremony earlier this month.
“We’ve worked hard since the last season before COVID to create a competitive program and evolve the brand or type of football you’re going to see on the field,” he said. “It’s definitely a step in the right direction, but there’s still a lot of work to do.
“We’re excited, honoured and humbled, but it also means the leap up and keeping our foot on the gas has to continue to evolve and better the team and the program.”
The Irish capped off the AFL’s 2021 season with a 1-3 record, before going out in the semi-final of the league’s playoffs to the Central Alberta Buccaneers – the eventual league champions.
Bellot said the Irish showed immense improvement when comparing 2021 to the 2019 season, including the on-field performances and the commitment shown by every player.
“We had a consistent roster, better than at times in the past, when we had not as many numbers or just a lack of performance,” he said. “But all of our games, minus against Red Deer, were competitive. We were in every game and had the lead at some times. We played a very good brand of football.
“Less penalties here, no mental errors there, and those scores would maybe be in our favour.”
In addition to the Organization of the Year accolade, seven Irish players were named as either first-team or second-team all-stars. Members of the Irish who cracked the first-team roster included defensive linemen Devron Brown and Nils Haeni, and running back Connor Lutz.
Lutz, a former university-level football player, has been a key component of the Irish’s offence since joining the team, according to Bellot. In 2021, Lutz led the Irish's attacking statistics, with 427 rushing yards and four touchdowns.
According to the Irish, he is the franchise's all-time leading rusher, with 1,111 career rushing yards in the AFL.
“I would say Connor is probably one of the best running backs in the league, if not the best back in the league,” he said. “What makes him is his toughness, his attention to detail and he’s always ready to go at any given time. He keeps in great shape in the offseason, and is a leader in our locker room. He’s a great complement to our quarterback.”
Airdrie’s four players who were named to the second-team all-stars included punter James Balsdon, linebacker Tim Larson, offensive lineman Eric Friesen, and receiver Sam Haeni.
Balsdon, who has lined up for the Irish in multiple positions over the years, averaged 37 yards per punt this season, according to the Irish’s statistics.
“I think James is a very under-rated punter and he’s a weapon for us on special teams – he helps us flip the field,” Bellot said.
“Tim Larson, or we call him Maui internally, has been a huge veteran presence on our defence.”
Having seven players make the league all-star teams was also a franchise record, according to Bellot, and was a testament to the team’s improvement from the 2019 season. Airdrie was the third-most represented team on the all-star teams this year, behind the Bucanneers and the Edmonton Elite.
“The players are the ones who deserve all the credit for coming in day in, day out and coming to practice ready to go,” Bellot said.