The Central Alberta Buccaneers made the most of a gift from the football gods.
With the Alberta Football League leading Cold Lake Fighter Jets disqualified from playoff play after they paid players, the Bucs were gifted a home playoff game.
Hosting the Fort McMurray Monarchs in the league semifinal at Great Chief Park Saturday, it was some second-half magic that pushed the Bucs into the final with a 28-20 victory.
Late in the game, when they needed it most the Bucs defence delivered. In the fourth quarter alone, the Bucs defence was huge with a pair of interceptions. On the night, they collected three picks and a forced fumble.
“We were running a different defence to start the year and we were having a little trouble stopping the run, we’re a little small, but we’re quick. So we changed it up,” said defensive back Tylor Johannesson, who also noted they were using the playbook of the high school team he coaches.
“It started being successful. We have the personnel, guys just flowing… we just fly around. It’s a great group and everybody is making plays. I think everybody had a big stat, a sack, a knockdown or a rushed pass. Everybody across the board, it was amazing.”
For Johanneson, a 10-year Bucs veteran, a trip to the final and a chance at a national title is everything he’s hoped for.
“The only reason I’m playing is to win a championship. The guys are going to be ready. We understand how much it means,” said Johannesson.
“All these guys that have put all these hours of their time and their lives into this… this means a lot and I think the guys understand that and we’ll be ready to go. I expect to win and I expect to go to nationals in four weeks.”
Early in the first half, Jarrett Burzuk connected with Branden Siemens for a 28-yard score that opened up a 7-1 lead.
After a Bucs roughing the kicker penalty late in the first quarter, the Monarchs took advantage. They cashed in a long touchdown and picked up an 8-7 lead heading into the second quarter.
Both defences stepped up in the second quarter and kept it nearly scoreless until the Monarchs buried a deep 37-yard field goal as time expired.
The visitors ramped up the pressure with a big return on the first play of the third quarter.
With the Monarchs primed for a score, the Bucs defence came up huge. They forced on a fumble on second down at the eight-yard line to stay within four points.
“I almost had a heart attack. Obviously going into half we were pretty upset,” said Johannesson.
“To start the half like that, just seemed like everything was going against us. When I saw that ball loose and multiple guys, risking their necks, I saw Todd Lewis get on it, I almost passed out.”
The Bucs marched the entire field and had a first and goal opportunity. Burzuk threw an interception that negated any points and temporarily killed the momentum.
On the Monarchs first play with under six minutes left in the quarter, Bucs linebacker Todd Lewis intercepted a pass on the five-yard line and returned it to the one. Hnatiuk punched it in on the ensuing possession to put the Bucs up 14-11.
“We talked about it before the game, he’s never had a pick-six. He picked and was a yard short,” Johannesson said.
“I think at that point I started to feel comfortable. Guys were fired up. That was pretty awesome. I wish he had have scored though.”
That seemed to put some more wind in the Bucs’ sails, as just a few plays later, Ashton Jones forced a fumble at midfield late in third quarter. It was a key play that really turned the tide for the home side.
That led to a 10-yard pitch and catch from Burzuk to Hnatiuk for his second score of the game.
Johannesson also had a big interception late in the game hauled in 35-yard catch with just 74 seconds left in the contest.
The Bucs will play the Calgary Wolfpack for the league title Aug. 24 in Calgary.