Thursday, Aug 20, 2015 01:58 pm By: Jason Pirie
A fan arriving late to the Alberta Football League (AFL) season finale between the Airdrie Irish and Central Alberta Buccaneers would have had a difficult time making out which team prevailed by the way the two squads exited the field.
Entering its final tilt of the season and riding a two-game win streak, the Irish closed the curtains on its inaugural AFL campaign with a 25-18 loss to the visiting Buccaneers on a rain-drenched Ed Eggerer Athletic Park field on Aug. 15.
With the Irish pinned deep in its own zone with less than two minutes to play and the game knotted at 18-18, an errant second down pass by Airdrie quarterback Wesley White, who had been razor-sharp all day, was picked off and returned for the game-winning touchdown.
As heartbreaking as it was to lose the way they did, head coach Rob Giessman and his Irish proudly walked off the field with their heads held high, while the third place Bucs shuffled towards the locker room a disappointed bunch.
“It might go down as a loss in the standings, but this was a big moral victory for us,” Giessman said. “We were constantly being told we wouldn’t be able to come within 40 points of this team but we nearly had them. They took us lightly and we frustrated them up and down the field. It would have been nice to win this one, geez it would have been nice.”
Irish defensive back James McNeil and linebacker Gunnar Godhe had seven tackles each, running back Matt Huntley rushed for 83 yards on 15 carries, while quarterback White racked up 242 passing yards and hurled a pair of touchdowns.
In the late stages of the third quarter, White and slotback/wide receiver Daniel Sparks put together the play of the game – one that may go down as the top offensive play of the entire season for the Irish – when they combined for an 82-yard touchdown reception to cut the home side’s deficit to three.
According to the 28-year-old Montreal native Sparks, who had been stymied all season, it was nice to finally be able to contribute offensively.
“I had waited all season for that,” said Sparks, who also snagged a 60-yard touchdown in the opening quarter. “I didn’t think I was going to be able to get that wide open downfield, but it was a great pass by Wes and a textbook play that worked to perfection.”
A Concordia University alum and 2013 national champion as a member of the Montreal Transit, Sparks called this past season a “great learning experience” for his squad.
“We’re a young team that went through the expected ups and downs this season, but the main thing was that we improved each time out,” he said. “We’re like one big, happy family, and we’re already looking forward to next season.”
Heavy recruitment, Giessman said, will be key for the Irish if they are to take that next step in 2016.
“We are willing to be patient, but at the same time we don’t think it will take us that long,” he said. “We have a good relationship with Airdrie’s bantam and midget programs, and we have strong connections with the Calgary Colts (Junior Football Club). It’s just about reaching out to the programs in the surrounding area and making players realize there is an option for them after midget, high school and junior football.
“This is a tremendous football league that we are proud to be a part of and that we believe we have a bright future in,” he added. “We have a ways to go, but we have a young, inexperienced roster that now has a season of AFL action under its belt. Our goal was to build a foundation here in Airdrie and I think we have done that.”
According to Irish president Matt Squires, who was instrumental in bringing an AFL franchise to Airdrie, for his squad to finish its first season with a 2-6 record is respectable and about what was expected by team personnel.
“While we are disappointed the season has ended so shortly, I’m proud of our Irish players and staff for all the dedication they put into our inaugural season,” Squires said. “I am excited to see what we have in store for 2016 and what the players can show the City of Airdrie and the Alberta Football League.
“We would also like to thank the fans, volunteers, partners and sponsors that came out to support us this year,” he added. “Without their help, this season would not have been possible.”