For the second summer in a row, the Airdrie Irish came up short against the Cold Lake Fighter Jets in the Alberta Football League's (AFL) championship game, going down 39-18 to the provincial and national defending champions on Aug. 19 in northeast Alberta.
“Yeah, it definitely is always disappointing when you make it to the final and [lose],” said Anton Bellot, the Irish's head coach. “You want to win, right? And for us, we prepared really well all week, but at the end of the day, a few mental errors made the difference.”
While disappointing to taste defeat in the league's championship game yet again, the result shows the continued growth of the Irish program, which just a few years ago was unable to put together a single win throughout the AFL season.
Compared to last year's championship defeat to Cold Lake – a bruising 55-0 shutout – Airdrie put up a proper fight this time around.
Playing after a lengthy trip to northeast Alberta, the Irish started slow on Saturday, going down 26-6 in the first half. According to Bellot, a few mental errors on special teams were to blame, and the Fighter Jets capitalized on those mistakes to return two touchdowns.
Despite being down by 20 points at the half, Airdrie started the second half better, scoring an early touchdown to reduce the arrears to 14 points.
From that point onward, however, Cold Lake's offence was able to maintain their comfortable lead while the Fighter Jets' defence was able to see out the victory amid a late Irish offensive rally.
“What I loved was our fight,” Bellot said. “We never gave up and that’s what I’m proud of.”
The Irish entered the AFL championship on the back of their strongest ever regular season. They finished with a 5-1 record, including an unbeaten 3-0 record at home.
Airdrie then produced a confident post-season victory over the Calgary Wolfpack in the semi-finals on Aug. 12 to seal their spot in the AFL championship game.
Though there still appears to be a gap in quality between the Fighter Jets – who have recorded a 17-0 record on their home turf in the last three years – and the Irish, Bellot vowed the Airdronians are coming for the AFL champions next year.
For new fans of the Irish, it's perhaps hard to imagine that in 2019, Airdrie's competitive men's team failed to win a single game. They often took to the field without a full roster, meaning many of the squad's players had to line up on both sides of the ball.
Bellot brought up how in the last two seasons, the Irish have turned their fortunes around admirably to generate a 12-4-1 overall record and become what he feels is one of the strongest men's football programs in Canada.
“I say that because of the culture,” said Bellot, a former linebacker for the Irish who took over the head coaching duties in 2021. “We have a bunch of people, from the board, to the players, to the staff, to the training staff, who really care about every single person here. It really is a family dynamic and we’ve taken a program that has struggled in the past and made it one of the best.”
Yet even though there's plenty of progress to be proud of in the last few years, Airdrie's head coach noted he won't be truly satisfied until the Irish can finally hoist the elusive AFL trophy.
“Our end goal is to bring a championship home to Airdrie,” he said.
According to Bellot, the Irish will wrap up their 2023 campaign formally with the team's awards ceremony at Atlas Brewing on Saturday at 7 p.m.