Orange flags were raining from the sky on an otherwise clear night in Lacombe, but the Central Alberta Buccaneers are heading to the Alberta Football League final for the first time ever after defeating the St. Albert Stars 43-24 in semi final action at ME Global Athletic Park last Saturday.
In what Bucs Head Coach Devon Hand described as one of the sloppiest games his team has played this season, the Pirate Crew found a way to come up with a victory over a Stars defense that wasn’t willing to give the Bucs’ offensive juggernaut any kind of ground.
“That, without a doubt, and I’ve been involved with football for over 20 years now, that was the ugliest football game I’ve been a part of,” Hand said of the win, which saw the team struggle to find a groove on either side of the ball due to a number of penalties, bad decisions and turnovers.
“We didn’t show up, first of all, to compete. We had that going against us. There were issues with officiating, which I won’t comment on other than that. We had players ejected, we had disruptions. We had just every negative thing that you could really factor into a football game, we saw all of that today.”
After taking their bye week to rest and relax, the top seed Bucs came into the game with all of the confidence in the world. Quarterback Brandon Leyh had just come off a regular season where he set or tied the AFL record in nearly every major category and didn’t throw a single interception.
They had every reason to be confident, too, as the last time they played the Stars, the Bucs came away with a convincing 44-8 victory.
Right from the get-go, though, it became apparent that this game wasn’t going to be anything like the last one, as the Stars’ defense were successfully able to limit the Bucs’ potent offense for the majority of the first half, including holding Leyh and the Bucs to a season low two points in the first quarter.
“That was a frustrating one, to say the least. I don’t think we played very well offensively or defensively,” said Leyh, who passed for four touchdowns and 431 yards, but threw his first two interceptions in the victory, which means the Bucs will move on to play the always dangerous Fort McMurray Monarchs, who defeated the Calgary Gators 32-20 in the other semi final game, in the AFL final in Lacombe this Saturday.
“Luckily I don’t think we gave Fort Mac or Calgary anything to watch on film, because that’s pretty much as bad as we can play in my opinion.”
It took until the second quarter for the team to get into their usual rhythm, as Leyh eventually broke his offense’s silence with a touchdown pass, the first of four, to wide receiver and former Mount Allison University teammate Josh Blanchard early in the second quarter.
Blanchard was easily the star of the night for the home team, putting up 253 yards on seven catches and completing all four of Leyh’s touchdown passes.
Despite the fantastic play of the quarterback and receiver, the Bucs still struggled throughout the game. Penalties marred the team on both sides of the ball, as they lost several big plays and scoring plays due to orange flags on the field.
“I’m not sure what the league record is in a playoff game for penalties, but I’m pretty sure we have that now,” Hand said, adding the team’s focus now has to be on preparing for that all important AFL final matchup against Fort Mac this Saturday.
“There’s so many lessons to be learned from this game. If we take anything like the product today and try to take this against Fort McMurray next week, we’re going to get beaten and beaten badly. Discipline is huge.”
“I think we took a step backwards today, so we’ve just got to get back to where we were and how we were playing a couple of weeks ago. Obviously we’re excited to play in the big game, but it’s a little bittersweet at this point.”
The last time the two sides met the Bucs managed to eke out a 43-42 come-from-behind victory over the team that eliminated them from last year’s playoffs.
“Fort McMurray’s a very, very, very good team. We beat them by one point and to come from behind and to barely eke out a win against them — they’re incredibly hungry, they’re talented and they’re motivated and they’re not doing the things that we’re doing,” Hand said.
The Alberta Football League final will take place this Saturday at ME Global Athletic Park starting at 6 p.m. The winner of that game will go on to host the Northern Football Conference champion Greater Toronto Area (GTA) All Stars in the national championship game.