Led by rookie quarterback Cole Stewart, the Central Alberta Buccaneers saved their season on Saturday.
The Bucs beat the last-place Lloydminster Vandals 35-20 at Lloydminster Comprehensive School to halt their two-game Alberta Football League losing streak.
“The biggest thing I wanted out of this game was a ‘W’, however it came, and then after that was to build some confidence and get guys thinking the right way again and going about things the right way and realizing that if they do the right things and execute the right way, they can make things happen,” said Central Alberta head coach Duane Brown. “It was also really nice to see depth guys get serious amounts of playing time.”
In his second AFL start, Stewart — a former Lacombe Rams star — threw three touchdowns and no interceptions to bring the Buccaneers back up to .500 with three games remaining in the short seven-game schedule.
He replaced the veteran Josh Achtemichuk as starter prior to their 17-0 loss at McMahon Stadium in Calgary to the Gators, but he showed marked improvement this weekend, completing passes to all but one of his receivers, including touchdown tosses to Jamie Blinkhorn, Taylor Waldbauer and one to rookie running back Junior Rivera who added two majors on the ground.
“He’s come a long ways, even from his first start to this one,” said Brown. “He did a much better job at checking to the right receiver at the right time. And then being a lot more comfortable in the pocket — last week he did a lot of running for his life at times whereas this week he was able to set up, be a little calmer and then make the progression to the right read.”
One of the big advantages Stewart brings to the Buccaneers backfield is his ability to pull the ball down and run with a physical edge; the former Edmonton Husky is not afraid to take a hit.
“The kid is fast and likes to run, it adds a whole other dimension to what our quarterback can do,” said Brown. “The super exciting thing for his teammates is he loves a little bit of contact. Two games in a row he’s dropped his shoulder and knocked a guy silly who’s come up to tackle our quarterback and that is fantastic to see.”
Kenton Poelzer had a big game on defence for the Bucs, while Jordan Willie was strong in defending the pass. Even Achtemichuk was effective after making the switch to defensive end from quarterback.
They also got a big play out of Jeremy Makila who returned an interception 80 yards before running out of gas before he got to the end zone.
The Buccaneers broke out to a 26-0 lead before slotting in subs and back ups. The Vandals mounted a comeback, but the Central Albertans responded with two more scores to put the game out of reach.
“The defense reacted to a little bit of adversity for the first time this year and we were able to come back and shut things down and take control that way,” said Brown.
The Buccaneers now turn their attention to the Edmonton Stallions, who are struggling a long with just one win on the season. Despite Edmonton’s record, they are not taking them lightly, it’s a game neither team can afford to lose in the provincial capital.
“They’re notoriously a hard-hitting, very aggressive ground-and-pound style of team, so I expect something along those lines from them,” said Brown. “They always have something a little special for us, because the two teams came into the league at the same time and we have a little bit of a rivalry that way.”
NOTES — Star defensive back and kicker Tylor Johnson is nearing a return after separating his clavicle at the end of their Week 2 loss to the Grande Prairie Drillers on June 14. He has been cleared to resume kicking, but not for contact yet. If he is not back for the Stallions game, he should be back the following week against the Ft. McMurray Monarchs on July 19 … The Buccaneers were forced to dress in the parking lot of the school after the grounds crew failed to show up to open up the facility for the game, which meant they also played without a functioning score clock.