The Airdrie Irish are hoping a busy off-season, full of hard work in the community and on and off the field will start to pay off today (June 4).
The Irish open the 2022 Alberta Football League (AFL) season at home this afternoon when they take on the defending champion Central Alberta Buccaneers from Red Deer.
A man that's been intimately involved in all aspects of preparing for the season ahead is Team President and last season's all-star running back Connor Lutz. After being named President early in 2022, Lutz says it allowed the Irish to set a new direction and path forward.
"Part of that direction was to take a relatively progressive approach to our off-season," Lutz said. "Maybe a little unconventional to the way some teams are managed in the AFL. Part of our approach was to build a team first and recruit players second."
Lutz says that meant building a culture and community for the Irish which has paid off in spades.
"We had players approach us about wanting to play for the Irish and wanting to be a part of what we've built."
The first part of the building was to establish a strong coaching staff which started with getting head coach Anton Bellot back in the fold along with an excellent contingent of assistants.
Then, Lutz says they started building and growing a team by offering anyone interested in being part of the Irish an opportunity to come out two times a month from January to March to see what playing for the team could be like. Lutz also feels that working with businesses to grow the Irish brand and the use of social media has also improved their profile in Airdrie.
The Irish then embarked on an aggressive recruiting drive that has brought a number of high-quality players to the team including Josh McNally who formerly played with the Calgary Colts as well as the AFL's Calgary Wolfpack. Several other former Wolfpack players along with others who have previous AFL experience have also joined the Irish and will be instant starters.
Along with their new recruits, some key veterans are returning to the Irish fold including quarterback Josh Williams, slotback and punter James Balsdon, wide receiver Spencer Castle, linebacker Dylan Webb, defensive back Cam Taylor and defensive tackle Devron Brown to name just a few.
Lutz says after last year's pandemic altered season with just four teams and four games, the AFL is expected to go through a season of growth this year.
"I think, as a whole, the league will be very competitive across the board. I don't think there's any team that really stands out above everyone else as being the runaway favourite to win the championship this year."
One thing he does believe is that the Irish are likely a step ahead of some of the other members of the league.
"We really used that (the pandemic year) to build on our program. We'll just continue to build on what we did in 2021."
That starts this afternoon with the home and season opener at Ed Eggerer Field at Genesis Place when the defending champion Buccaneers come calling. Fans are invited to come early to take in the tailgate parties, food trucks and beer gardens which will feature Airdrie Irish Beer which has been brewed by Atlas Brewery.
Kick-off is scheduled for 2:00 pm.
Send your news tips, story ideas, pictures, and videos to email@example.com