The Fort McMurray Monarchs had been the Central Alberta Buccaneers biggest test all season.
In regular season play, mere weeks after wildfires damaged the northern Alberta community, the Bucs and Monarchs played to a tightly contested 43-42 Bucs win.
The Alberta Football League final was the rematch for these two, evenly matched teams. This time, the Monarchs emerged triumphant, winning the league title 32-23.
The Bucs carried a 14-3 lead into the half as quarterback Brandon Leyh connected with wide receiver Axsivier Lawrence for a 5-yard TD pass wide receiver Josh Blanchard for a 27-yard TD on a 3rd and 7.
But the power run game of the Monarchs helped the team grind out the win. In the first half, the Bucs defenders were able to contain the talented Monarchs running back Melvin Abankwah. But by the second half, the grind of the ground game wore down the Bucs defence.
“They have, by far, the best skill player in the league in Melvin Abankwah, he’s absolutely spectacular,” said Hand. “Once you start wearing down, he gets bigger creases and he gets his yards.
“He’s fringe CFL talent. If you don’t come ready to get physical, they can get on you quick.”
Not helping matters, the Bucs lost some of their starting offensive linemen early in the game. That allowed the Monarchs defence to pressure Leyh. Leyh did what he could and escaped some pressure, but he took a quite a few hits during the game.
“He’s done that his entire career,” said Hand. “He’s a true competitor, he’s gritty and the guys love him.”
Late in the game, the Bucs had a chance to pull ahead, down 24-23 with 9:45 minutes to go in the fourth quarter. After teams traded possessions, Leyh was given a chance with 3:56 to go after Markus Fay intercepted a Monarchs pass.
But, Leyh threw a pick six that put the game out of reach for the Bucs.
“We ran out of gas at the end, they’re a very talented team,” said Hand.
“I’m proud of our guys, we stuck together this game. They battled hard and they deserved it.”
The loss puts an end to the Buccaneers season. They had gone 8-0 in the regular season and had a chance at a perfect season. The Monarchs will now face the Greater Toronto Area All-Stars in the Canadian Major Football League final.
“The game we wanted to win the most was the national championship, two weeks from now,” said Hand. “That’s the ultimate goal. If you don’t win the big game, then your season didn’t matter. You’re always shooting for the big game.
“We’ll learn from it, we’ve come a long way in two short years. We have a nice foundation and hopefully we can retain our big name recruits.”
The Monarchs and All-Stars will meet on Sept. 10 in the national championship.