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Winning national championships always is on the top of the to-do list for the Racine Raiders.

But not just any national championships – real ones.

And with a huge move for the iconic semiprofessional franchise that has nine crowns to its credit, the Raiders now have a chance to take things to an even higher level.

The franchise, which is entering its 70th season, announced last week that it was leaving the Mid-States Football League and joining the Gridiron Developmental Football League, beginning in 2023. A unanimous vote by the Raiders’ Board of Directors paved the way for the move.

Racine spent 11 of the last 12 seasons in the Mid-States Football League.

Racine Raiders
This Gatorade shower Coach Kennedy received for a regular season game against the Wisconsin Hitmen on June 11 shows how much the team loves a good win. The Raiders walked away with a 35-34 victory that night. – Credit: Mike Ramczyk

Vice President of Marketing Don Wadewitz said the decision to change leagues comes down to that one driving factor – titles – and not the ones months after the season all around the country that exist for the organizers to make money.

There’s no shortage of those, that’s for sure.

“Our goal every year is to win a national championship,” he said. “We’re always looking for the best way to go about that. With a league that has a national presence (like the Gridiron), it already has a built-in opportunity to be able to (be) crowned a national champion.

“… A lot of ‘national champions’ are crowned at bowl games that take place three months after the season in Florida and Las Vegas that are ways for a few people to make some money. We’ve never really been into that. We always feel you should have to earn it. We feel this gives us that chance.”

Wadewitz said the best-case scenario from the Raiders’ perspective always has been a postseason that goes through a bracketed tournament, and not a regional one like those that are played months after the fact.

Every tournament run is special, he said, but Wadewitz highlighted the 1989 team that traveled to Canada to face a squad from Ottawa in what was dubbed a world championship of semiprofessional football that year.

“We always look for that best opportunity,” he said. “That’s why this league was ahead of the others that we researched.”

Exhaustive process

Getting to last week’s announcement was quite the journey.

The Raiders, the second-oldest adult amateur football team in the United States, formed a league search committee three months ago, according to a news release, and more than a dozen leagues were identified at first, then trimmed to six before the final selection was made.

GDFL President Charles Thompson said the league will welcome the Raiders with open arms. The league began in 2010 and is based in Memphis, Tenn., with more than 30 teams across 15 states.

The Syracuse (N.Y.) Strong enters 2023 as the reigning league champions.

“We’re very excited to add a high-caliber organization with such a rich history and championship pedigree to our national platform,” he said. “We know that entering their 70th season, the Raiders have consistently been a top-level team on the field, while also being a model organization to emulate off the field.”

On the field, fans who flock to Racine Horlick Athletic Field next summer will still see the same caliber of football, Wadewitz said.

Racine Raiders
Torin Tuner dives for the end zone during the July 2, 2022 game against the Grand Rapids Seminoles. – Credit: Mike Ramczyk

But internally, the new league appears to feature better-run organizations as a whole, which also could step the competition up a bit.

“They’re going to be better organized on the back side, which will relate to more consistency on the front end,” he said. “There have been some teams now that show up with 20 to 25 players. This league has a minimum with how many they’re required to travel with, and they haven’t had any sort of issues with forfeits and those sorts of thing.

“More consistency, knowing a game is going to take place against quality competition, those are the things the fans are going to notice on the field.”

Work in progress

With the league announcement now complete, the Raiders will turn their attention to building a strong Upper Midwest Division, Wadewitz said. League play for 2023 begins in June.

The search committee continues to reach out to other teams in Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota to find those perfect matches. One of the Raiders’ longtime rivals, the Wisconsin Hitmen, already have joined the GDFL for next season.

Limiting travel in the regular season, while also keeping the high-quality level of competition are two of the keys in finding new teams for the Upper Midwest Division, Wadewitz said.

“Whenever you make any sort of league change, you always want to make sure you have a good rivalry to kind of anchor everything,” Wadewitz said. “As we kind of looked to build the division, (the Hitmen) are the first team we reached out to, and they were interested.

“They understand the value of this rivalry as well and wanted to make sure we maintained it. From the get-go, they told us they were on board with whatever (we) decided. It’s great to have two teams, we’re so close, the games have been very competitive over the last several years. I think our fans just really love that rivalry.”

The Racine Raiders in action

Racine Raiders
Stanley Azor recovers a fumble during the July 2, 2022 game where the Raiders served up a 70-burger on the scoreboard against the Grand Rapids Seminoles. – Credit: Mike Ramczyk
Racine Raiders
Alex Gonzalez in action against the Seminoles. – Credit: Mike Ramczyk
Racine Raiders
Turner follows great blocking by teammates during the July 16, 2022 game against the Illinois Cowboys. The Raiders were the victors with a 44-14 win. – Credit: Mike Ramczyk

We know that entering their 70th season, the Raiders have consistently been a top-level team on the field, while also being a model organization to emulate off the field.

Charles Thompson, President of the Gridiron Developmental Football League
Racine Raiders
Racine Raiders
Justin Benko leaps for a successful interception. – Credit: Mike Ramczyk
YouTube video
Racine Raiders
The Racine Raiders were in full force at the 4th of July parade in Downtown Racine, with a Jeep Wrangler, a semi truck and cheerleaders rounding out their regiment. – Credit: Loren Lamoreaux
Racine Raiders
Justin Benko of the Racine Raiders gives a demonstration of endurance in the parade while Mitch Farr works the crowd. – Credit: Loren Lamoreaux

Racine Raiders coverage and more

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