MUSKEGON – Back in 2018, the West Michigan Ironmen won their very first league championship, beating a team called the Midway Marauders 68-44 in the Midwest Professional Indoor Football League title game.

Terry Mitchell played for the Ironmen in that game.

Last year the Ironmen won their second championship, beating the Southern Michigan Apex 81-25 in the very first Great Lakes Arena Football league title game.

Mitchell was West Michigan’s offensive coordinator in that one.

On Saturday night the Ironmen will be going for their third league title, and second straight in the GLAF, when they host the Michigan Avengerz at 7:15 p.m. at Muskegon’s Trinity Health Arena.

Ironmen head coach Terry Mitchell, who has won championships with the team as a player and offensive coordinator. Photo/Jeremy Clark

Mitchell is now the Ironmen’s head coach and hopes to complete the championship trifecta.

“I got one as a player, I got one as an offensive coordinator,” he said. “Now to get one as the head coach would be icing on the cake.”

But as Mitchell knows better than anyone, this championship game might be a lot different than the previous two.

If the regular season matchup between the Ironmen (4-0) and the Avengerz (3-1) was any indication, it could be a real barnburner.

West Michigan beat the Avengerz 56-42 back on April 20, but the game was far closer than the score indicated. There were four touchdowns in the insane final minute of play that decided the outcome.

The Ironmen’s Clay Oliver (11) makes a tackle from behind. Photo/Jeremy Clark

The Avengerz led 34-32 with 3:30 left in the game, the Ironmen led 40-34 with only 56 seconds left, then the Avengerz scored again with 31 seconds remaining to take a 42-20 lead.

The Ironmen scored two touchdowns in the final seconds to steal the heart-stopping win.

Running back Davveon Taylor scored on a one-yard run with 14 seconds left, then added a two -point conversion run. Raheem Stokes put the nail in the coffin with an interception and return for a touchdown with seven ticks left on the clock.

Now comes the rematch, and the Ironmen know they will be facing a quality opponent that’s aching for revenge.

Coach Mitchell noted that his team played without two veteran standouts – quarterback Alex Carder and standout linebacker Derek VandenBosch – against the Avengerz in April, and still found a way to win when everything seemed to be going wrong.

The Ironmen’s Alex Carder lines up to kick an extra point. Photo/Jeremy Clark

Both of those key veterans are expected to play on Saturday.

“It was by far the best game of the season,” Mitchell said. “Next man up, that’s what it was. We knew we were going to have to have some other guys step up, and we knew we were going to have to make some coaching adjustments, and that’s what we did.”

There is definitely some bad blood between the teams heading into Saturday’s championship game. The benches cleared for an ugly minute or two of pushing and shoving in the April contest, and players had to be separated to avoid a larger brawl.

That type of overflow passion is not unusual when a new challenger is trying to replace the king of the hill, Mitchell said.

“Both teams are very competitive,” the coach said. “(The Avengerz) are trying to break into the arena football scene, and we’re one of the teams that has been dominant. Of course they see us as the No. 1 team in Michigan, and they want to come in and knock us off the throne.”

The Ironmen’s Danny Hugan (7) tries to break away from defenders. Photo/Jeremy Clark

One big key on Saturday will be for the Ironmen defense to put more pressure on the Avengerz’ quarterback, according to Mitchell.

“Their receivers catch the ball really well,” the coach said. “We have to put pressure on that quarterback, make him make quick decisions and keep the ball in front of us. We have to be more aggressive.”

The exciting victory over the Avengerz in April wasn’t the first time that the Ironmen were pushed this season. They beat the Ohio Boom 41-22 back on April 12, but again the game was closer than the score would suggest.

The Ironmen only led 28-22 at halftime before sealing the victory with two fourth quarter touchdowns.

The point is that the Ironmen feel tested this season. Unlike last year, when they had blowout victories in all but one game, they’ve had to play fight hard to remain undefeated. They know they will have to do much more than just show up on Saturday to claim another championship.

The Ironmen’s Willie Shanks breaks away toward the end zone. Photo/Jeremy Clark

West Michigan beat Tri-State 82-6 in the season opener and Toledo 72-12 before running into the tough Ohio and Michigan squads.

“Our first two games (this season) were easy games,” Mitchell said. “That’s not a knock on the teams we played, but we knew we were better and we got a little complacent. The last two games were wakeup calls. We had to play Ironmen football the way we know how to play it.”

The Ironmen will be returning to the field after a long layoff, which is not ideal for a championship game. They haven’t played since that April 20 victory over the Avengerz.

Sometimes it can be tough for players to roll back to practice and get their heads back into the sport after weeks away, but that has not been the case this time around, according to Mitchell.

“I was surprised,” he said. “Practice went pretty well for having a long layoff. Everybody was happy to see each other. It was good to see all the guys. We joked around a little bit, then we got serious and got down to business.”   eddie