Monarchs bound for AFL title game again

Fort McMurray Monarchs

Fort McMurray Monarchs Dylan Elias, left, and Devon Stewart, right, celebrate a touchdown reception by Elias against the Gators. The Monarchs are headed back to the Alberta Football League title game for a second straight year. Robert Murray/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

Robert Murray – Fort McMurray Today – Sunday, August 21, 2016

It’s been a long time running. It’s been a long time coming.

Coming into the 2016 Alberta Football League season, the Fort McMurray Monarchs had yet to ever beat the Calgary Gators; with the most recent loss coming in last year’s championship game, the toughest of them all to take.

Saturday, the Monarchs scored their second victory of the season against the Gators, ensuring an end to a three-year run by Calgary teams at the top of the league. While the Monarchs’ crop of talented, yet young players savoured the victory, the win meant a little bit more to team president and linebacker Jesse Maddox, a longtime AFL veteran.

“It opens the door for a lot of things,” said Maddox. “It’s a confidence booster and it’s also a hump we needed to get over.”

On the opposite side of the ball many times before was quarterback Darryl Leason, a former Canadian Interuniversity Sport standout. Leason had gotten the best of Maddox almost every time, including last year’s championship game.

This time though, Maddox and the Monarchs had Leason and the Gators figured out.

“Playing against Leason, the offence hasn’t changed,” continued Maddox. “With the personnel we had, it was easy to cater our game plan around what he was doing.”

The game on paper was a contrast between strong offences and suffocating defences. After both teams forced each other to punt from their first series, Melvin Abankwah took the ball into his capable hands and even more capable legs, returning it down the field for the opening score.

Off a blocked punt by the Gators, the visitors equalled the game’s score with a touchdown of their own. That tie didn’t last for long though, with Carl Bisallion hauling in Will Arndt’s second touchdown pass of the quarter to restore the seven-point lead.

The Monarchs continued to pad their lead in the second quarter with a touchdown reception by Dylan Elias. Though the Gators brought the game to within seven points again, the Monarchs could not be contained.

“We definitely knew we had to mix it up,” said Monarchs head coach Dave Spence. “They did a great job of stopping the run at times.”

Though Spence noted the missed opportunities in the red zone by his team to add more points to the board, the team did come through at points, faking a field goal, with Arndt tossing his fourth touchdown pass of the evening to Nigel Thomas.

A late Gators touchdown tightened the score, though it was a case of too little too late for the defending AFL champions.

“We knew it was going to be a battle, it ended up being a great game,” continued Spence.

Still new to the league in the team’s regular season victory over Calgary, quarterback Will Arndt rose to the occasion once again Saturday.

“We were doing some things offensively, having some miscues and not being totally on the same page, but finding ways to grind out drives,” said Arndt. “That was the best defence I’ve played all year.

“We’re just happy to come out with a win.”

The win sets up another chance at the AFL title for the Monarchs, one they’ll go for next Saturday in Red Deer against the Central Alberta Buccaneers. In wake of last year’s title loss and a loss to the Bucs earlier this season, Spence knew there’d only be one acceptable result this time around.

“Just getting there is not good enough,” he added. “Nobody remembers second place.

“We want to go there and try to finish the job.”