Spotlight shines on Stars
St. Albert's semi-pro Alberta Football League team tackles second season with championship aspirations
By: Jeff Hansen
| Posted: Wednesday, Apr 30, 2014 06:00 am
The future is bright for the St. Albert Stars after their inaugural Alberta Football League season as playoff finalists.
The Stars finished 6-4 overall after losing the championship game 41-16 to the undefeated Calgary Gators.
“We made it all the way to the playoff final and for a first year team that was a good accomplishment,” said middle linebacker Keith Matchem at Sunday’s spring camp at Riel Recreation Park. “This year we’re going to come back twice as strong.”
The Stars are shooting for the moon with a lineup loaded with returning players and the majority had previous semi-pro AFL experience before hooking up with the St. Albert squad.
“Our goals are set high this year but at the same time we’re not underestimating anybody,” said cornerback Erik Kyler. “There is a new team in the league this year (Fort McMurray Monarchs) and we’re not going to underestimate them like last year where we had underestimation on our side. We were underestimated and we beat teams that didn’t think we would beat them and it helped us so we’re not going to give that advantage to anybody else this year.”
In league play the Stars and Calgary Wolfpack tied for third at 3-3 and in the playoff rankings St. Albert was seeded third on the strength of its 46-34 win over the Wolfpack, the 2012 finalists and winners of a league-high 14 titles.
“We really pulled together and we got wins,” said Kyler, the team’s defensive MVP. “Beating the Wolfpack was a big thing for a lot of the guys and then to go to the championship game was also great for us. It was a shame to lose but we’re definitely planning on going back.”
The template is in place to exceed last year’s expectations.
“A lot of guys are on the same page now. We’ve had a year to play together so we’ve got a feel for where the other person is going to be on the field and we’ll be a lot tighter this year as a team because of it,” said Matchem, the team’s MVP who led the AFL in tackles.
The Stars kick off their season with the May 31 exhibition against the Central Alberta Buccaneers at 3 p.m. in St. Albert or Edmonton.
The first league tilt is June 7 against the Gators, losers of the 16th annual Canadian Major Football League final to the National Football Conference champion Montreal Transit 50-28 in Dollard-des-Ormeaux, Quebec. Game time is 5 p.m. in St. Albert or Edmonton.
A lack of shower facilities and proper dressing rooms at the Riel turf field is a stumbling block for the Stars to play home games in St. Albert.
The Stars are counting down the days until they huddle up against the Gators.
“That game will be the rivalry of the season. A couple of guys still have a sour taste in their mouth left from that last game so we’re looking to come back with a fierce fury,” Matchem said.
The final wasn’t as close as the last game between the teams before the playoffs, a 17-12 win by the Gators.
“The championship game didn’t go in our favour,” Matchem said. “We were hanging with them pretty good in the beginning of the game and then we had a couple of calls that weren’t in our favour and a couple of bad plays and it kind of unravelled from there. One thing led to another and we were too deep to catch up I believe in the end.”
The AFL, founded in 1984, is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing a venue for players to continue their football careers.
This year’s eight-team circuit includes the Lloydminster Vandals (2012 national champions), Edmonton Stallions and Grande Prairie Drillers.
Kyler, 27, is entering his fifth AFL season after stops with the now disbanded Edmonton Seahawks, Sherwood Park Renegades and Edmonton Garrison Army.
“The level is actually getting higher every year but definitely defences in this league are legit and that’s the hump for these offences to beat them but the offences are getting better too. Last year with the Stars it was the best offence that I personally played with on any (AFL) team,” Kyler said. “Our defence really came to play every game but our success was basically on the offence really coming together as a unit and as a family and connecting and getting it together. Defence can only do so much and our offence came through for us huge.”
The ball-hawking defender intercepted seven passes and returned three for six-picks.
“It was definitely a good season, not only for me personally but as a team as well,” said Kyler.
The Westlock product never played a down of high school football but still managed to make the Edmonton Huskies in his last year of junior eligibility.
His football career started over a series of games of Madden NFL on PlayStation with his brother.
“We said let’s go get a football and we started tossing it around and he said, ‘Man, you’re good. You should go try out somewhere,’ and so I did,” said the Northern Alberta Playground Equipment employee who also builds equine jumps.
As good as Kyler was on defence, Matchem was even better as a tackling machine in his third AFL season The former Renegade who played high school football for the Bellerose Bulldogs and Timberline Wolves in Campbell River switched from outside linebacker to the middle with the injury to Mike Bryski, the team’s co-owner along with quarterback Troy Pappas, and hunted down opponents all over the field.
“I was really happy. I set a goal to lead the league in tackles last year and I accomplished that. I had an average of almost 10 tackles a game during the middle of the season,” said Matchem, 28, a pipe layer and equipment operator for Ace Excavation.