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‘Heartbeat’ of West Michigan Ironmen sets tone in royal domination of Central Illinois

Veteran linebacker Derek VandenBosch’s strip-and-score on first play gets team going in 68-21 rout.

West Michigan Ironmen linebacker Derek VandenBosch poses for a portrait during a team check-in Friday, March 11, 2022, at the VanDyk Mortgage Convention Center. (Bethany McCullough | CatchMark)

MUSKEGON – Linebacker Derek VandenBosch is always looking to make plays that set the tone and change the game for the West Michigan Ironmen’s arena football team.

You never know when that might happen, but it normally does. Saturday night, it happened 15 seconds into the Ironmen’s home contest against the Central Illinois Royals at Mercy Health Arena.

VandenBosch stripped Royals running back Tez Turner on the first play from scrimmage and he had nobody in front of him on his 15-yard jaunt to the end zone. The Ironmen kept scoring at will and rolled to a 68-21 victory against the overmatched Royals from the Peoria area.

“I’m big on wanting to make a play for the defense because one play turns the whole tide and it’s good to start off fast,” said VandenBosch, whose squad built a 35-0 halftime lead and extended it to 42-0 less than a minute into the third quarter.

“I knew this game could get a little sloppy and I might not have that many opportunities, so I was trying to go out there quick, make something happen.”

Photos by Scott DeCamp | CatchMark

VandenBosch said he saw a bit of a bobble when Turner got the ball, so once he knew he had contain, he was going for the strip.

It’s the second straight game in which VandenBosch has forced and recovered a fumble that shifted momentum in the Ironmen’s favor. He did so in a 55-51 season-opening victory against the Charlotte Thunder last week.

The 6-foot-1, 220-pound VandenBosch finished with five tackles Saturday, including 2 ½ for lost yardage.

Speaking of momentum: The Ironmen (2-0) seem to have plenty of it on the field and in the way they’re being supported by their following.

Ironmen head coach/general manager Nate Smith said the best part of the night was the energy of another solid crowd, which provided a lift from start to finish.

“We’ve got a lot of things going our way. We’ve got great players and I think it starts there. We’ve got a great organization – Mario Flores leading our organization, he does a great job. He loves the city of Muskegon and I think that’s such a great marriage,” Smith said.

“We get players in here that love to play football, love to be around fans. I think the fans feel that. We feel their love back and forth, and so it’s just really cool. We’re excited. We really want to keep this thing going.”

Ironmen starting quarterback Alex Carder split time with Tyler Fehler, as the former played the first half and latter in the second half. Carder finished 4-of-5 passing for 81 yards with two TDs and one interception. Fehler was 6-of-7 for 149 yards with four TDs.

Receiver Sterling Alexander caught an 18-yard TD pass from Carder in the first quarter, Alexander’s fifth score in two games. Mason Partlow caught a pair of scoring passes from Fehler in the second half.

Clay Oliver notched seven tackles for the Ironmen with one sack and two tackles for loss. Nick DeKraker made six stops, including two sacks and three tackles for loss.

The Ironmen defense follows the lead of VandenBosch, whose mentality is “Get to the ball and good things will happen.” Jamal Abbey heeded that advice in the secondary, as he picked off a pass by Royals QB QuinTon Fonville and returned it 26 yards for a TD to cap the first-half scoring.

West Michigan Ironmen defensive back Jamal Abbey poses for a portrait during a team check-in Friday, March 11, 2022, at the VanDyk Mortgage Convention Center. (Bethany McCullough | CatchMark)

Fonville finished 10-of-25 passing for 96 yards with two TDs and two picks.

“Arena ball’s a tight game – it’s football in a shoe box, so every concept has a reason. As soon as I saw the outside break, I knew the inside was coming, jumped it, got a convoy with my guys,” Abbey said. “I want to make sure I get in the house every time I get one and that’s what they (helped him do). I appreciate my defensive backs and the rest of my defensive unit for helping me get there.”

VandenBosch could have guided Abbey to the end zone with his eyes closed. The 2008 Orchard View alumnus, who is in his seventh year with the Ironmen as their “Jack Linebacker,” knows Mercy Health Arena like the back of his hand.

VandenBosch, 31, is strength coach for the Muskegon Lumberjacks, the United States Hockey League team that also plays in the arena.

“I’m ingrained in this place. I love it,” he said.

Photos by Marcus Smith

Abbey said VandenBosch demands excellence and that he was accepting of Abbey as a first-year utility player when he joined the organization.

Pads on or pads off, VandenBosch is a great guy, Abbey said.

“Oh, I mean, by far he’s the heartbeat that sets the tone with what’s going on,” Smith said about VandenBosch. “He sets the tone in the locker room when we’re getting ready to go, he sets the tone when he arrives for pregame meal. I don’t know anybody on this team that loves playing football as much as he does. He enjoys every moment that he’s out here and I think that’s so contagious.”

The Ironmen hit the road for a rematch next Saturday night against the Charlotte Thunder in North Carolina. The season-opening matchup between the Ironmen and Thunder lived up to its billing, coming down to Alje Buiter’s game-saving tackle at the Ironmen 2-yard line on the final play of the game.

Smith knows that the Ironmen, who will be playing their first road game of the season, will be going into a hostile environment. As the schedule currently stands, the Ironmen will next play a home game May 15.

VandenBosch can’t wait to play in “The Foundry” again. With the resurgence in downtown Muskegon and fans supporting the Ironmen, the vibe feels different.

“It’s amazing, you know. A few years ago, it wasn’t that popping down here, so it’s really nice to have a downtown area that’s busy, that people are actually at. It’s come a long way,” VandenBosch said.

“I’m going to play until the wheels fall off.”

Lead writer for CatchMark SportsNet and Web Services leader for CatchMark Technologies.

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