The Fox River Raiders have always had good seasons, making the league semifinals in each of their first two years as an organization, but for a well-structured team going into Year 3, good isn’t good enough anymore.
“Our expectations are literally nothing short of winning a championship,” Raiders co-owner Mike Webb told Developmental Football USA. “We’ve revamped our team from last year. We’re a whole new squad with younger talent and we’ve got faster, hungrier guys. We started our practices back in December so we are literally two weeks ahead of every other team in the league. We have expectations of nothing short of winning a championship.”
Winning a championship means the Raiders will have to be the last team standing in the Northern Lights Football League when everything is said and done, and Fox River certainly isn’t the only team positioned for success in 2017, with their eyes on the prize.
“We’ll have to get through the Roscoe Revolution and the Wisconsin Ravens based out of Kaukauna,” Webb said.
The Ravens (10-2 in 2016) knocked off the Revolution (7-3), 26-20, to win the League Championship Game last season, one week after the Revolution bumped the Raiders (6-5) out of the playoffs in the semifinals 46-22. Look for all three of those teams to be among the last standing in the NLFL in 2017, come July or August.
“We know what it takes to build a team and we understand there’s going to be a lot of scrutiny along the way,” Raiders co-owner Mike Jerrick told Developmental Football USA. “There’s going to be phases when you’re not very good and there were phases in our first and second season where we weren’t very good, but we understand this is a process and it takes time to build a brand and build a franchise. We know where we want to be and we know what it’s going to take to get there and we’re determined to get there.”
Following the season, many teams at the developmental level take a solid four to six months off before they oil up the machine and get ready for the next season, but not a team laser-locked on winning a championship like Fox River.
“Our motto is ‘Where Dedication Meets Determination,’” Jerrick said. “That’s where we come in. We as owners spend countless hours during the season and off-season to do whatever we can to make this team better. Mike and I were both calling plays last year, but this year we decided to bring in a coach that was more experienced, Andy Rittman, who has competed for multiple championships in other leagues. We decided to upgrade and we feel that the sky is the limit for us.”
Being dedicated and determined aren’t the only two qualities it takes to suit up for Fox River. Character is also a vital part of the evaluation process for Jerrick and Webb and for a developmental team, they’ve set a pretty high standard.
“We set certain rules for the guys,” Webb said. “Every league has their own rules, and we also set our own team rules, because we get that everyone is out to play football and have a good time, but there’s fans in the stands. There’s kids that look up to you, so we set rules to make everyone accountable, to make sure everyone is staying human. When we set our rules up, we hold the guys to a high standard. We have a signing day every year and we explain to them that you can’t have success without structure.
“If they can’t follow the rules, we send them packing. We’ve sent multiple guys off the team. We let them go because they couldn’t follow the team rules. Football is not a ‘Me’ sport, it’s a team sport and we don’t really tolerate ‘Me’ players, we have no time for that. That makes our job harder as owners and we will not let anything stop us from reaching our goals.”
What they’re left with is a well-structured and committed group of that they can then focus on fine-tuning to become as good as possible with minimal distractions. For 2017, the passing game looks to be a highlight for the Raiders as the receiving core is led by two of the league’s better receivers in wide receiver Alex Whitney and slot receiver Jay Thomas.
“Alex Whitney brings lots of experience,” Jerrick said. “He’s an amazing talent and he’s just an overall athlete. He’s smart, very smart and he can help these younger guys pick apart a defense and let them know, ‘Hey, cut your route short here, this is open.’
“Jay Thomas is a slot receiver and he’s very football smart, very passionate, and leads with his gameplay. Everything has to be perfect, he is literally a perfectionist. If he drops a pass in practice, he’s hitting pushups on his own.”
These two are joined in the Raiders offensive arsenal by do-it-all athlete J.J. Simpson.
“He’s literally our utility player,” Jerrick said. “He can kick, punt, play running back, linebacker, offensive line, defensive line. He can pretty much do whatever you ask of him and he’s been with us from the get-go.”
The offensive line is anchored by Will Ornelas.
“He’s a big guy, but one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet,” Jerrick said. “Well, he’s nice off the field. Once the whistle blows and it’s playing time, he’s not as nice anymore. The guy is a force at guard or tackle. He’s one of those do-whatever-it-takes players and he’ll play wherever we need him.”
A veteran heads up each of the three position groups for the Raiders on defense and starts up front on the line with standout defensive end Jack Peters.
“He’s a beast and he stops at nothing, until he makes a tackle or gets that sack,” Jerrick said. “His motor is high and it’s always revving.”
The group of linebackers is led by Cullen Schaefer, who’s a defensive coordinator’s dream being both a gym rat and a student of the game.
“He is an athlete,” Jerrick said. “He’s big, strong and he can go sideline to sideline. He spends his time in the gym and when he’s down with the gym, he’s always picking our brains to see what we’re thinking.”
In the secondary, Fox River looks to establish a ‘No Fly Zone’ and those efforts are led by safety Gary Bivins.
“He’s extremely fast and extremely agile,” Jerrick said. “He has a background in mixed martial arts and he can move as fast as anybody. He’s a ballhawk.
“Those three guys on defense kind of make the gears turn.”
While the two owners put in as much work as possible to bring their vision for the Raiders to reality, they don’t do it alone. The rest of the team and other local organizations also serve as pillars to Fox River in their quest for success.
“Lourdes Academy, our home field, is amazing,” Jerrick said. “The facilities manager and the principal are amazing and they work with us. They are always on top of the hospitality as well.
“The Oregon Club supplies us with food and drinks and let the guys have our camaraderie. The owner of the club is involved in cancer fundraisers and so much stuff. We went there and reached out to him. He’s our big sponsor this year and he’s going to continue to sponsor us in years to come.”
The Raiders kick off their first pre-season game two months from today against the Joliet Buccaneers on April 22 and play the Northern Lights Cowboys the following weekend.