By Steve Gunn and Dave Hart

MUSKEGON – The 2020 season started and ended with disappointment for the West Michigan Ironmen – all within a few days.

Now the local arena football squad is ready to turn a new page and start a new season, with a lot of familiar names on the roster, including veteran quarterback Alex Carder, who led the team to a lot of big wins over the years before sitting out last season.

Carder and the Ironmen will launch their 2021 campaign with a home game on Saturday night against the Chicago Power at Mercy Health Arena. Kickoff is slated for 7 p.m. While the number of fans will be limited due to state COVID regulations, some tickets should be available at the door.

The Ironmen began 2020 with high hopes after winning the Midwest Professional Indoor League championship in 2018. That league merged with another league to form the American Arena League last year, and the Ironmen happily joined.

But they didn’t play well in their first game, losing 47-37 at home to the Music City Fire.  And just when they got back to practice, and felt like they were ready to play better, they learned that the rest of their season would be cancelled due to the COVID outbreak.

Ironmen quarterback Alex Carder is back after taking a year off.

“It was a big challenge for us,” said Ironmen Coach Nate Smith. “That game was a wakeup call for our team. We kind of went through the motions and took things lightly, and after that we had some great practices and a ‘get-after-it’ attitude. Then all of the sudden we were shut down. It left a bitter taste in our mouths for the last 13 months.”

Needless to say, the Ironmen have been looking forward to 2021 for a long time, and their enthusiasm peaked a few months ago when they learned that Carder, a former Western Michigan University star who was their starting QB for four seasons, would be coming back this year.

“He had a little change in his job situation, and that opened up his ability to play this year,” Smith said. “He came out to camp and earned his spot back. I just said to him the other day, he looks better than he ever looked. He appreciates the game, appreciates the team and has been an incredible leader.  He’s been everything you would want in a quarterback.

“If you would have told me six months ago that he would be back and be better, I’m not sure I would have believed you.”

Carder will be joined by a lot of other familiar players who have been around for several seasons, and helped the team claim the league title two years ago.

That list includes running back Dakota Smith, linebacker Derek VandenBosch,  lineman Dyron White, Denzell Maze, Ryan Armstrong and Nick DeKraker, and receivers BJ Foy and Keyondre Craig.

Since their first season six years ago, the Ironmen have been very good at keeping the same solid nucleus of players together, year after year. The group has led the team to an all-time record of 23-13  , and wants to accomplish even more.

Dakota Smith will be back at running back for the Ironmen.

“We’ve been really lucky to have great team chemistry and great players who want to stick around,” Smith said. “We have a lot of local guys who stay connected in the offseason. And in our league, guys want to play in Muskegon. They know we’ve got great fans who are educated and into the game, and the arena is a great place to play.”

The Ironmen are scheduled to play an abbreviated four-game season this year, with all of the games at home.

The second game will be on April 23 when the Carolina Predators come to town. The Ironmen will host the St. Louis Bandits on May 15 and the Pennsylvania Union on May 22.

There is still some uncertainty about the impact that COVID will have on the season, and some teams currently don’t have arenas to play in because the facilities are being used as vaccine centers, Smith said.

So different teams will play a different number of games, depending on circumstances, Smith said. There is a chance that the Ironmen could add a few road games, but that won’t be determined until later.

There will be league playoffs, with winning percentage being the determining factor in the division standings, according to Smith.

Several AAL teams already have a few games under their belts. Chicago, Saturday night’s opponent, has played once, beating Indianapolis 32-30 last weekend.

The AAL will have a total of 14 teams in three divisions this season. The Ironmen will be in the Midwest Division with Chicago, Indianapolis and St. Louis.