The Central Alberta Buccaneers went blow for blow with the champs.
They needed a late score to land the knockout punch, but the Bucs knocked off the long-time rival Fort McMurray Monarchs 38-28 at Great Chief Park in their home opener.
With the visitors surging late and the Bucs holding a slim 31-28 advantage, quarterback Jarrett Burzak hit Axsivier Lawrence in the endzone on a 24-yard pass to essentially seal the victory.
“All game we were like ‘at least the second half we have to hit this shot’ and finally it opened up and there it was, it was good,” said Burzak about his fourth touchdown pass of the game.
Fort McMurray has been utterly dominant in the Alberta Football League the past two seasons and last year, were undefeated on the way to a league title and national championship.
This version of the Monarchs wasn’t quite that, as the visitors were shorthanded and it showed late in the game. They were also missing a kicker in the contest, which hurt them in the field position battle and in a few field goal situations in the fourth quarter.
Still, the Bucs got the job done and sit 2-0 early in the AFL season.
“It’s just another game in the books. I mean sure, it’s cool to beat the national champions. We’re a new team, they’re a new team and I look forward to playing them again down the road,” Burzak said.
“We have a lot to clean up offensively. We had four or five turnovers. Fumbled a lot. Just clean up the passing game.”
The fireworks started early in the contest, as on just the second play from scrimmage Burzuk launched a monster 70-yard pass to Ben Hnatiuk who hauled it in and rumbled into the endzone.
— Byron Hackett (@RDAbyronhackett) June 2, 2019
Six plays later, the Monarchs showed their poise when Mitchell Phillips connected on a touchdown to tie the game.
The visitors capitalized on a Kaidyn Puttick fumble in their own territory to open up a 14-7 advantage. They drove the field with a nice mix of run and pass before they punched it in from the two-yard line.
Early in the second quarter, Trent Kroetsch made a huge play on defence for the Bucs. His interception and then a conversion by Tylor Johannesson on a fake punt helped the home side capture some momentum.
They drove down the field and Hnatiuk caught his second touchdown of the game to tie the affair at 14.
With under a minute to play in the half, the visitors converted a 37-yard run.
Central Alberta rebounded quickly, scoring on a 51-yard touchdown catch and run from Burzuk to Dario Vares and they pulled ahead 24-20 with just 12.5 seconds left in the half.
Hnatiuk notched his third score of the game on the first play of a fourth quarter to push the Bucs lead to 11. Burzak hit his wideout on a bubble screen and Hnatiuk forced his way into the endzone.
“He had a monster game, he makes my life easy. When I can get 18 the ball, he does quite well,” Burzak added.
Phillips got the Monarchs within a field goal after a one-yard touchdown run and two-point conversion with 8:38 to play.
“I was worried,” said Bucs head coach Gary LaGrange.
“They were proven to march the ball. With six minutes left, that wasn’t out of reach… I loved the first half. We missed opportunities. Stupid little miscommunication things… I think (Fort McMurray) and are going to be at the top again. It’s going to be us and them probably.”
The home side forced a Monarchs three and out late in the game and that’s when Burzak found Lawrence for his fourth major of the night.
Next up, the Bucs will take on the Airdrie Irish on June 15 in Airdrie, before coming back home on June 22 to take on the expansion Cold Lake Jets.