The Central Alberta Buccaneers aren’t living in the past, even if their most recent past was somewhat successful.
The Bucs posted a franchise-best 5-1 regular-season record in the 2013 Alberta Football League season before losing to the visiting St. Albert Stars in a semifinal. Heading into their 2014 season-opener tonight at 6:30 p.m. versus the Calgary Wolfpack at Lacombe’s MEGlobal Athletic Park, the Bucs have every intention of playing well into September.
“We were absolutely thrilled to put together a big season last year, but that was last year, this is now,” said Bucs head coach Duane Brown. “We start off against a perennial power in the league in Game 1 and there’s not a better way to start.”
The Buccaneers thrived last season due a substantial improvement in their physical conditioning.
“That was huge for us, especially on the defensive side of the ball,” said Brown. “We were able to outlast everybody simply by running faster, going harder and wearing teams down. We’ve altered our offensive scheme this year and we’re going to be far more reminiscent of our defence. Teams are going to have to be in shape to play against us.”
Brown sees the same level of fitness with his squad this year and is also tickled with the potential of his new players.
“We’ve added some young talent that is amazing. I’m in awe of some of the young talent that we have this year,” said the Bucs sideline boss, referring to the likes of Lacombe products Junior Riviera, who will start at running back tonight, and Cole Stewart, one of three rookie quarterbacks.
The Bucs’ receiving corps features returnee Matt Merkley of Sylvan Lake, who attended a Calgary Stampeders tryout camp earlier this year in North Carolina.
Reigning AFL defensive player of the year Ian Keetch has returned to anchor the Bucs’ line, which also features another league all-star in Kerry Lynch. The Buccaneers did lose Sean O’Donnell, the league’s top offensive lineman last season, to the Wolfpack, and quarterback Byron Stearns — another league all-star — and key middle linebacker Curtis Dreger have retired.
“Ian is back and he’s chomping at the bit because he gets to go against O’Donnell in the first game. That’s a nice little rivalry right off the bat,” said Brown.
In Stearn’s absence, veteran Josh Achtemichuk will start at quarterback versus the Wolfpack, with Brown aiming to work in two rookies at various points of the game.
The Buccaneers dropped a 26-12 decision to the host Stars in their lone preseason game last weekend, a setback that didn’t bother Brown.
“We went up there with a very basic package and wanted to see what the young guys could do,” he said. “The vets didn’t play very much. We let the young kids play and get some experience at what it’s like to play at this level.
“For the kids coming out of high school, playing against men was definitely a big change. We wanted to give them that full experience before they go against a powerhouse like the Wolfpack.”
Coming off last year’s regular-season success, the Bucs are looking to go all the way this season.
“Nobody is talking about anything other that winning it all,” said Brown. “We don’t want to be cocky and we’re not going to look past any team, but our expectations are that we win every game. That’s why we put on the pads and go out onto the field.
“We want to host the national championship game here in Lacombe.”