With the 2023 Alberta Football League (AFL) season beginning this weekend, the Central Alberta Buccaneers are full of optimism.
Last year the Buccaneers fielded a team that despite going through a rebuilding phase, grabbed the final playoff spot. They lost in the first round of the playoffs as defending champions.
However, this time around with plenty of returnees they’re hoping to take the next step.
General manager of the Bucs Mike Wilkinson told The Advocate they’re coming together as a group early on.
“We’ve got a great team that’s clicking very well. We’ve had good turnouts at practice, lots of energy, and we’ve been to a couple of fundraisers,” he said.
“Last year was a good starting point and we’re certainly looking to build upon that.”
On offence they’ll be led by second-year quarterback Brett Bylsma and have welcomed back fullback Jon Roach, who had the fourth-highest yards in rushing last year.
Wide receivers Axsivier Lawrence and Ben Hnatiuk, who were on the Bucs’ 2021 AFL championship-winning team, will make their return to the team. Veteran receiver Tylor Johanesson will also rejoin the team after a lengthy absence.
“It’ll be great to have veteran experience in the receiving core and they also take on a bit of a leadership coaching role too with their years of experience with the team,” Wilkinson said.
“We have more depth on the offensive side of the ball than we had last season too. That’s been great to see.”
On defence, Central Alberta will be coached by defensive coordinator Ryan Miller who previously played safety for the team and Geoff Rambauts will resume his duties as head coach.
They’ll also welcome back shutdown corner Riley Collins who was injured for much of last season.
Defensive lineman Travis Dietrich will lead the Buccaneers’ defensive squad since he joined the team two years ago and alongside him will be the 2021 AFL defensive MVP linebacker Adam Küntz.
A few weeks ago the AFL went from having a seven-team league to only six teams. The Fort McMurray Monarchs pulled out of the league because of declining registration numbers.
The change caused the league to modify the schedule and due to the circumstances, all six teams will make the postseason this year.
“That doesn’t mean it’s going to be an easy walk,” Wilkinson added.
The Bucs will open the campaign on Saturday, June 3 against the Airdrie Irish in Lacombe at MeGlobal Athletic Park at 6 p.m.
On June 10 they’ll play their first game at Setters Place in Red Deer versus the Edmonton Elite at 7:30 p.m. followed by a rematch a week later on June 17 in Edmonton.
Central Alberta will play their final home regular season game against the Calgary Wolfpack on June 24 at Setters Place at 6 p.m.
Following a league-wide bye week, the Bucs will conclude the season with two games on the road. The first is on June 8 at 6:30 p.m. versus the Peace Country Cowboys followed by a matchup with the Cold Lake Fighter Jets on July 15 at 6 p.m.
The league quarterfinals will take place on July 29 with the semifinals on Aug. 12 and the AFL Championship on Aug. 19.