The Central Alberta Buccaneers let a critical win slip away on Saturday at Great Chief Park.
In an all-important battle for first in the Alberta Football League, it was the Fort McMurray Monarchs that had the last laugh with a 35-17 win in the final game of the regular season.
The Monarchs found the end zone with just 2:07 left in the game when Karsten Millar hit Keon Hughes to take a 21-17 advantage.
Monarchs running back Bryce Harper, the league leader in rushing touchdowns, rumbled into the end zone to throw some salt in the wound with just over a minute left on the clock.
As time expired the Monarchs hit another passing touchdown to close out the victory.
“It’s something we’re going to remember,” said Bucs defensive back Tylor Johannesson.
“They want to be able to say they won 35-17. I think they know and we know and probably everyone here knows what happened with our quarterback and that wasn’t the true score of the game. They need that for their egos. We’ll remember it.”
With the Buccaneers leading 14-9 early in the third quarter after a lengthy lightning delay, quarterback Brandon Leyh scrambled for a first down and was hit hard by a Monarchs’ defender. The quarterback wasn’t able to come back in the game and wide receiver Josh Blanchard was forced to take over.
“I think we win by a decent amount if our quarterback stays healthy,” said Johannesson.
“He’s the best player in the league and obviously makes us go. Unfortunately, the guy who came in is an athlete but doesn’t get a lot of practice reps… our backup is hurt. Our defence held us in there, we just tried to stick it but couldn’t score points.”
The Buccaneers appeared to force a fumble while they had the lead late in the game, but after the ball rolled out of bounds, the referees ruled that it was an incomplete pass. For a team without a quarterback, it was another backbreaking play.
“At that point, it was tough because we needed that,” Johannesson said.
“We made a big play and it sucked the wind out of our sails. The guys were just battling so hard.”
Early in the night, neither team allowed a score in the first quarter until the home side broke the deadlock midway through the second.
The Bucs finally broke through with a 10-yard touchdown passing score at 7:07 of the second. Leyh, the league’s leading passer with 30 touchdowns hit Ben Hnatiuk to get the Bucs on the board. Leyh added another touchdown in the quarter with a 30-yard heave to Johannesson.
With just over a minute left in the half, the Monarchs finally found the end zone with a short quarterback sneak.
Blanchard struggled in his first few possessions and threw a crucial interception deep in Bucs territory late in the third quarter. The miscue allowed the Monarchs to score three plays later on another quarterback sneak.
First place was on the line and two of the league’s top defenses’ doing battle Saturday, Johannesson said his team did exactly what they needed to on that side of the ball but just weren’t able to get one final stop.
“I’m proud of them. A lot of those guys I’ve played with for a long time here. We’re just a bunch of guys that work and come to practice and play hard,” he said.
“That’s a team of a lot of guys that got cut from CFL teams and fringe pro players. We’ve got a group of incredible guys that fly around the field.”
The Buccaneers only loss of the year came to the Monarchs on the road in their opening game of the AFL season. In the defeat, the Bucs finished second with a 6-2 record on the year.
The Bucs will host an AFL semi-final game against the Calgary Wolfpack Aug. 18 at 6 p.m. at Great Chief Park.