The Central Alberta Buccaneers were out for respect in their Alberta Football League season opener, and they earned just that.
The Bucs beat perennial powerhouse Calgary Wolfpack 39-17 at MEGlobal Athletic Park in Lacombe on Saturday night, thanks in large part to a stingy defensive performance.
They entered the game with a bit of a chip on their shoulder, believing the rest of the league thought their 5-1 campaign in 2013 was a fluke.
But that motivation was destructive until they managed to get themselves under control.
Veteran defensive back Tylor Johnson came out too jacked up and took a couple of bad penalties, including one for objectionable conduct early in the third quarter. He was pulled off the field by head coach Duane Brown and given a stern talking to by 12-year veteran Dave Henderson .
After that, Johnson took over the game.
Following the flag, he deflected three passes and intercepted another, turning the momentum and really changing the attitude of the home team.
“It was really emotional, we’ve been preparing for this game for a month-and-a-half now,” said the fifth year player. “The first time we ever beat this team was last year and the predictions were that they were going to destroy us today and we came in ready to go. The emotions today, after the game, are pretty intense.”
Johnson also kicked three field goals — two from 19 yards and one from 39 — and four extra points. Wide receiver Matt Merkley had two touchdown catches while Taylor Waldbauer and rookie running back Edwin Rivera Jr. had one each. The Bucs also added a fourth quarter safety
Gordon Swindells had a touchdown reception and Matt Huntley had a two-yard touchdown run for the Wolfpack and Morgan Willis Jones had a field goal and two extra points.
The Wolfpack had a 10-7 lead, however after the first half.
Brown did not split hairs on about the impact his starting right cornerback had in changing the game’s momentum.
“He did exactly what you’re supposed to do, which is take your frustration out on the other team,” said the head coach.
There was much curiosity about the Bucs this year after several key players moved on, including star middle linebacker Curtis Dreger, starting quarterback Byron Sterns and the league’s top offensive lineman Sean O’Donnell, who jumped to the Wolfpack.
But, after they shook their first half rust, they looked every bit as good as the team that emerged as a contender last year.
One of the big reasons why they return to that status this year is the addition of Rivera, who showed the speed, agility and versatility that made him a viable recruit for Vanier College in Montreal. The scholarship fell through, but two years later the Ontario product appears to have found a home in Red Deer with the Bucs.
“We’ve known since Day 1, when we saw him on the practice field, that kid is the real deal and phenomenal and exciting to watch,” said Brown. “I can’t wait until our offensive package is big enough that it can really exploit what he can do.”
The five-foot-eight Rivera, 20, is just happy to be able to play football. The coaching staff is already showing confidence in him, giving him the ball late in the second half to put the game away.
“I felt great coming in and our O-line stepped up huge and allowed me to have a huge game,” he said.
But there is still much work to be done for the Buccaneers.
Penalties reared their ugly throughout the game, stalling some of their own drives, but more devastatingly extending several Wolfpack drives. Their special teams also need to get better, according to Brown.
Despite putting 39 points on the board, their offence misfired for much of the first half and veteran pivot Josh Achtemichuk through three interceptions in addition to his four touchdowns.
“He was a little nervous,” said Brown. “He was the starting quarterback on this team years ago, and he unfortunately played in the era when the Wolfpack destroyed us. He was a little excited because he knew he had the weapons today to do it. But his nerves settled down and he settled in and he just rolled it from there.”
The Wolfpack entered the game without playing an exhibition game, and it showed.
Though the game swung in the third quarter, star quarterback Darryl Leason looks to a missed opportunity at the second half that really hurt them. On third-and-two yards inside the Bucs’ 10-yard line, they went for it and made it, but a holding penalty dragged the ball back 10 yards and they had to settle for a field goal.
It sapped their momentum and instead of a seven-point lead they had just a three point lead at the break. Things spiralled downward after they lost their starting fullback Matt Squires in the third quarter to a concussion.
“You never win a national championship in your first game,” said Leason, who finished with two touchdowns and an uncharacteristic three interceptions. “We’ve still got a lot of work to do, it’s best that this happened to us in Game 1 and we know what we have to improve on and work on and hopefully the guys are committed and come out and work hard and get back to where we are used to playing football.”
Leason is in his 15th season in the AFL, and says the league is stronger now than it ever has been, especially with the emergence of the Buccaneers.
Despite a lot of miles on his right arm, he has no plans of packing it in yet.
“There’s still fire down below there — a little less after you get beat up like tonight — but it’s fun,” said Leason who set career highs with 633 yards and nine touchdowns on 45 of 55 passing in 2012 against the Bucs.
The Buccaneers host the Grande Prairie Drillers on Saturday at 6 p.m.