With the 2023 Alberta Football League (AFL) season officially underway, the Airdrie Irish are hitting hard, and they came away with a hard-fought victory against the Central Alberta Buccaneers in their first game of the campaign.
The two competitive men's football teams came face to face on June 3 in Lacombe, eager and ready to leave their mark in this year’s season opener. The Irish ultimately overcame their Central Alberta opponent with a 25-20 victory, but it was no easy task to overcome the strength of the Bucs.
Head coach of the Irish, Anton Bellot, gave props to Airdrie's adversaries. He said they could feel it was going to be a tough game from the opening kick.
“That's a very good Central Alberta team we played,” he said. “On paper, it may have looked like it was going to be a little lopsided, but internally we knew that was going to be a close game.”
According to Bellot, the Airdrie players' extensive preseason conditioning and their overall mental strength gave them the competitive edge. He added they will continue to build on the team's strengths and weaknesses as they continue the 2023 AFL season.
Airdrie had some tense moments throughout the game, allowing them to identify key areas of improvement. Bellot said coming together as a team helped them overcome any gameday challenges.
“I'm very fortunate and thankful for the win, but more thankful for the opportunity to see where we need to get better [and] where we need to improve,” he said.
Defense and offense both played integral parts to the Irish victory. Bellot said they hope to continue to lead the AFL in turnovers this season.
“Last year, we were in the top two units in the league in terms of turnovers, so we want to continue on that track,” the coach said. “We didn't turn the ball over, we were able to run our plays, run the ball as we're known for, and then hit some of our new play-makers for touchdowns.”
The Irish are coming off a franchise-best 2022 season, during which they finished runners-up in the AFL to the Cold Lake Fighter Jets.
Even though the Irish didn’t play at their peak level of performance on June 3, their head coach is more motivated now than ever.
Looking ahead, Bellot said the Irish camp is focused on what they need to do, without worrying about what other teams are doing. Recognizing that not everything will go perfectly, he wants his players to focus on the moments and not the days.
“Everyone's going to have a bad moment,” Bellot said. “But they get to choose if they have a bad day.”
In moments when the team’s mindset is low, Bellot’s message is to lean on the people beside them. He said it’s important to depend on others to get into a winning mindset.
The coaching staff also play a significant role in the team’s success. Bellot noted their team is in a rare position having an entire coaching staff, while other teams may not necessarily have that luxury.
“They help and hone with the structure,” Bellot said. “We have a unique opportunity versus some other teams in the league where we have a full coaching staff.”
With their attention on the next game, the team is committed to focusing on important details while maintaining their conditioning and tempo as they get set for their home-opener this weekend.
The Irish’s next game is on June 10, when they will be taking on the Peace Country Cowboys on Airdrie's home turf. The game will be held at Ed Eggerer Athletic Park with kickoff at 4 p.m.