Photos by Scott DeCamp | CatchMark
MUSKEGON – Sterling Alexander might be new to the arena football game, but West Michigan Ironmen veteran quarterback Alex Carder has been impressed with the receiver’s willingness to learn.
Alexander proved a quick study Saturday night in West Michigan’s thrilling 55-51 season-opening victory over the Charlotte Thunder at Mercy Health Arena. The 5-foot-9, 185-pounder from Southfield caught eight passes for 127 yards and four touchdowns to spark the Ironmen in their Arena Professional Football League debut.
A strong crowd was into the fast-paced action from start to finish in a contest that literally came down to the final play. West Michigan’s Alje Buiter ran down Charlotte’s Daniel Bender inside the Ironmen’s 5-yard line to make a game-saving tackle with no time left on the clock.
“I loved the atmosphere. I loved the fans, I love everything,” said Alexander, 23, a Southfield Lathrup High School alumnus, who played collegiately at Concordia University in St. Paul, Minn. “Man, I love this team. I love the fans. I can’t wait until the next home game. I hope we have more fans here, honestly.”
The Ironmen had been looking forward to Saturday’s matchup with the Thunder since last season. The teams made plans to square off in a makeshift championship game of the American Arena League in 2021, but it never materialized.
Their APFL debut was a dandy, as the teams combined for 106 points — 27 in a wild sequence spanning the final 4:15 of the game. The Thunder took a 45-41 lead on Jalan McClendon’s 5-yard TD pass to Bender, but the Ironmen answered with two Carder-to-Alexander scoring tosses (30 and 4 yards) sandwiched around a safety.
The Thunder pulled within 55-51 on McClendon’s 35-yard TD pass with 43 seconds left, and they did manage to get off a snap on before the final horn, but Buiter saved the day.
“Unbelievable – Iron Nation is phenomenal when they’re out here,” said Nate Smith, West Michigan Ironmen head coach and general manager. “We can feed off of ’em, they knew what was going on when that safety was getting going. The whole place was going nuts. I’m really proud and love the people of Muskegon and I thank them so much for coming out here. Our guys love it.”
The Ironmen were loving the connection between Carder and Alexander.
Carder, 32, the former Western Michigan University standout, finished the night 17-of-27 for 216 yards with seven TDs and two interceptions. He also scored a rushing TD on a 7-yard scramble.
Carder and Alexander met at the start of training camp last month. Alexander offered high praise of Carder when asked Saturday night about his first impression of the signal-caller.
“Tom Brady – he’s so smart. He’s smart. He reminds me of Tom Brady,” Alexander said. “He was a cool guy (when they met). I knew he was about business, the way he was talking to us. I just knew he was about business.”
When told about the comparison, Carder couldn’t help but smile. The Kansas native and Grand Rapids resident has been playing arena or Canadian football since he was released by the Detroit Lions in 2013.
“It’s an enormous compliment. It’s probably not deserved, but I’ll take it,” Carder said with a chuckle. “I’ve been around the bend quite a few times now and I remember being a rookie playing arena ball and needing to adjust to a different game. It’s good for me to kind of verbalize how it’s different from the outdoor game.”
Carder has been impressed with Alexander in return. He recognized his athleticism immediately, but more importantly, he discovered how coachable Alexander has been.
Prior to Saturday’s game, the Ironmen coaching staff were wondering who was going to step up. Alexander answered the call.
“It easily could have been Mason (Partlow), it could have been John Ross, it could have been any of our guys,” Smith said. “This game is a game of momentum and a game of passion. I think Sterling got it going tonight. We’re really happy for him.”
Keyondre Banks-Craig (Muskegon High School alumnus), Mike Wynn and the aforementioned Ross also caught TD passes for the Ironmen. Derek VandenBosch (Orchard View) paced the defense with 11 tackles with one sack, 1 ½ tackles for loss and a fumble recovery.
McClendon, a 6-5, 219-pounder who played at N.C. State and Baylor, finished 16-of-24 passing for 253 yards with four TDs and no picks for the Thunder. He also ran for two scores.
The Ironmen are home again next Saturday (April 16) when they host the Central Illinois Royals. Kickoff is set for 7:15 p.m. at Mercy Health Arena.
The season opener was exactly the type of football Smith is hoping to see in the new league.
“I sure hope so. I mean, that’s what we’re looking for – that’s why we’re in this league,” Smith said. “I said to (Charlotte Thunder coach Ervin Bryson) at halftime, I said, ‘I wish we could get some more teams out here to play like this. This is great football.’
“It’s a great football game. We’re going down there in two weeks and I know sure as hell they’re going to give us a run for our money again. It’s going to be a great game, it’s going to be a hostile environment, but that’s why we put on the pads, that’s why we compete.”
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