Bucs reach AFL finals with ugly win

Central Alberta Buccaneers

Receiver Josh Blanchard of the Central Alberta Buccaneers is taken down by St. Albert Stars defensive back Randy McLean during AFL semifinal action at M.E. Global Field Saturday. Blanchard recorded four touchdowns in the game, setting an AFL playoff record. The Bucs defeated the Stars 43-23. Ashli Barrett/Lacombe Globe/Postmedia Network

Ashli Barrett – Lacombe Globe – Wednesday, August 24, 2016

It wasn’t pretty, but the Central Alberta Buccaneers secured a berth in the Alberta Football League final for the first time in franchise history Saturday.

In what was a penalty-laden affair, the Bucs defeated the St. Albert Stars by a score of 43-23 in semi-final action at M.E. Global Field. While winning was what mattered most, Head Coach Devon Hand made it clear his team’s performance was anything but.

“That, without a doubt – and I’ve been involved with football for over 20 years now – was the ugliest game I’ve been a part of,” said Hand. “We didn’t show up, first of all, to compete.

“There was some issues with officiating, which I won’t comment on. We had players ejected, we had disruptions. We had just about every negative thing you could really factor into a football game.”

Dusting off rust after a first-round playoff bye, the Bucs struggled to find their offence early. Leading by just 2-0 after the first quarter – the Stars allowing a safety – it wasn’t until three minutes into the second that quarterback Brandon Leyh found Josh Blanchard for the first touchdown of the game.

The Bucs led 24-10 at the half. It was in the third and final quarters that things became really ugly.

While fans of both teams jeered at officiating, St. Albert Stars’ offensive line Chance Willman and Bucs defensive back Steven Adu were ejected from the game. A Bucs touchdown was wiped out on a holding call and penalties continued to slow the game.

“I’m not sure what the league record is in a playoff game for penalties but I’m pretty sure we own that one. That’s not a record you want,” Hand said.

“There’s so many lessons to be learned from this game. If we try and take anything like the product today against Fort Mac next week, we’re going to get beat and beaten badly.”

Still, there were some bright spots on the field for the number one ranked team in the country.
Blanchard set a new AFL playoff record, connecting with his fellow Mount Allison University alumnus quarterback Brandon Leyh for four touchdowns.

“They were mainly playing Cover 3 and a little bit of man so we just took advantage of how they were playing up close,” Blanchard said. “It was just about getting behind them on defence and waiting for Brandon to sling the ball down the field.”

Nick Leonidakis also set a playoff record, sacking the Stars quarterback on five different occasions.
“We made some adjustments in the second half. They came out and had better continuity,” said Hand. “I thought Ron Lee did a great job of pacing the offence and gave us the spark and the ground game we haven’t had all year so that was nice to see.”

The Bucs will now face the Fort McMurray Monarchs – the very team that bucked them out of the semi-finals one year ago, and very nearly handed the Bucs a loss in the regular season this year.

The tale of the week, Hand says, will be using the last game as a teaching point and working to improve the team’s discipline.

“Fort McMurray’s a very, very good team. We beat them by one point,” Hand said. “They’re incredibly hungry, they’re talented, they’re motivated and they’re not doing the things we’re doing.

“If we continue this trend, our season’s over.”

The Bucs will play the Monarchs for the AFL Championship Saturday, Aug. 27 at M.E. Global Athletic Park. Kickoff is set for 6 p.m.

Should the hometown team pull of a win, they’ll host the Northern Football Conference champion from Ontario Sept. 10 for the national title.