RACINE – It’s only the preseason, but the Racine Raiders – the team that’s billed as Minor League Football’s most successful franchise – are back, and it’s as good as it was advertised.
It’s that time of year again, and as the Racine Raiders, perhaps the greatest semi-pro football team in state history, begin their 70th season Saturday night with a preseason opener at 7 p.m. at Horlick Field, 1648 N. Memorial Drive, Racine.
Wednesday night was mostly light, but the guys were in good spirits, happy to be back on the new turf field and to be introduced in preparation for Saturday’s home opener.
Players emerged from a bounce-house style, closed inflatable tent to the rousing voice of a PA announcer going through introductions and bios of the starters.
They all joined at midfield before running a few laps around the field and eventually proceeded to go through individual position drills and a few 11-on-11 scrimmage plays.
The hazy, humid summer air was a tad uncharacteristic for early May, but the guys will take it after what seemed like one of the rainier Aprils on record.
Star receiver Jordan Payne, a Racine native, stretched out his legs with a light jog and a huge smile on his face, and quarterback Mitch Farr zinged 25-yard frozen ropes on deep-outs and curl routes.
Furthermore, the massive hogs upfront on the offensive line looked in midseason form as the Racine Raiders emphasized red zone passing plays.
For head coach Wilbert Kennedy, a Hall of Fame Raider player that starred for 21 seasons from 1989 to 2009, it’s his ninth season at the helm.
The Lake Geneva native starred at Lake Geneva Badger High School in three sports before becoming a beast of a defensive lineman at UW-Stout.
By the time he joined the Raiders, the team was winning national championships and traveling all over the country, from Massachusetts to Oklahoma and everywhere in-between.
The team doesn’t travel as much these days, and most games will be against league opponents from Illinois in 2022.
What stands out about the Raiders is that many of the guys starred at Horlick, Park and Case, the city’s three public high schools, and the team gives back to the community in a variety of ways through fundraisers, meet-and-greets with fans; they often help those in need and in times of crisis.
The Racine Raiders are king of the city in the summer when it comes to sports, and you may see as many as 2,000 spectators packed into beautiful, newly-turfed Horlick Field.
With concessions and plenty of fun things to do for the kids, it’s a family experience like no other.
For Kennedy, it’s about taking pride in what the Raiders put on the field, which is a perennial league and national championship contender.
“The conference used to be more regional, and we would travel all over the country when I started coaching in 2014,” Kennedy said Wednesday night. “Now it’s mostly us and Illinois teams. There can be 1,800 people in the stands. We have a real nice crowd.”
Last year, injuries decimated the Raiders, with 17 players on the injured list at one time.
They bowed out a little early in the playoffs, but they are only eight years removed from a national championship (in 2014).
The goal is simple: win a national championship. But for now, it will be about using three preseason games to determine the final roster.
“I love the game,” said Kennedy, 55. “When I was 26, I went up and tried out for the Toronto Argonauts (a professional football team in the Canadian Football League).”
“Guys here (with the Raiders) play for the love of the game. There are a lot of hometown guys. We’ve won several league championships since 2014, and we’re doing well.”
Kennedy is excited to see his quarterback Mitchell Farr and receiver Jordan Payne – both hometown guys – back this season. Payne starred at Division 1 Alcorn State University.
Also, Joe Garcia, last year’s rookie of the year, offensive MVP and special teams MVP of the league, is back and ready for more.
Kennedy also mentioned returning offensive linemen Caleb Gwynn (Racine), Brian Gales (Ripon University, Racine native), Dan Kant-Hull (Williams Bay native), Isaiah Tressel, Gerald Bester (Racine), and Howie Triplay (Waukegan, Ill.).
Safeties Channing Schultz and J.D. Hardy – who are two of the Raiders’ star players – are back, along with Thomas and Justin Bankos.
Also, William Norwood, a Racine business owner, is a receiver. Norwood played Division 1 college football at Ohio University as well.
“There’s some nice guys,” Kennedy said. “We have a local running back that’s new, Alias Williams, I’m excited to see what he can do.”
Jacob Zimmerman, a local player whose father played semi-pro football, is another interesting new prospect.
“We’re really excited about Jacob, too,” Kennedy added.
Kennedy added the team’s average age is 26, and they’re starting to get a little younger.
Anton Graham, a veteran defensive end, just got hired as the head football coach at Racine Case High School.
Kennedy said the team supports local organizations and gives the time when it’s asked.
Team President Matt Nelson takes care of and plans community events and the Raiders’ involvement.
On Saturday, the Raiders will welcome the Sheboygan Sabercats.
“We play to win all our games, obviously, but my key is to get to see everybody play,” Kennedy said. “It’s a tough conference, it’s good football, and every year you’re just not sure who’s going to win. We strive for a national championship every year.”
About the Racine Raiders
The Racine Raiders are a 501c(3) not-for-profit organization staffed entirely by volunteers. The members of the board of directors, coaching staff, players, and support staff all donate their time. The Raiders were founded in 1953 and are the longest continuously operating adult amateur or semi-pro football team in the United States.
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