The process of starting a team from scratch has not been easy, but Eddie Rieck is bringing semiprofessional football to his hometown of Wilmington this summer.
Rieck is a co-owner and head coach of the Tri-County Cougars, who have joined the upstart 10-team Royal Football League. They recently released a 10-game regular-season schedule which begins with a June 1 away game against the Lakeshore Cougars. Their first home game at Wilmington Bobcat Field is scheduled for June 8 at 3:30 p.m. versus the Rockford Rams.
A 1995 graduate of Wilmington High School, where he played football, Rieck started playing semipro ball in 2003 while living in Michigan. After four years of playing, he started coaching and has been “doing it ever since.” In the past year, he has helped form an organization that will allow him to coach in Wilmington, to which he recently moved back.
“I had met a guy who was a general manager of a team in Michigan,” Rieck said. “He and I started talking about bringing a team to this area. I knew of the Joliet Buccaneers and a team up by New Lenox (the Lincoln-Way Patriots), and there was a team over in Kankakee, but other than high school, there wasn’t a team for Wilmington and Coal City and Morris.”
By last September, the Cougars started becoming more than an idea. Their website, tricountycougarsfootball.com, was launched. Rieck started talking to guys in the area that he thought might be interested.
The hope was to form a team in time to play a 2013 season.
On Feb. 9, the Cougars held their first tryout at Legends Sportsplex in Bourbonnais.
“We only had 10 or 15 guys come out, so we were not really sure if it was going to work out,” Rieck said.
More practices and training camp sessions have been held in the weeks since, and Rieck says the Cougars’ numbers have grown. They are up to around 25 to 30 players, and with a roster size limit of 60, there is room for more. While the Cougars actively recruit players from their Tri-County base (Grundy, Kankakee and Will), Rieck says they have players coming from as far away as Chicago and Springfleld.
Players interested in joining the Cougars can sign up until the RFL’s May 19 deadline by visiting the Cougars’ website. Requirements are that a player is 18 or older and out of high school. There is a $50 registration fee and a $100 player team fee.
“We’ve got a really good mix,” Rieck said. “I think my oldest guy is in his 30s. He had played with a Kankakee team before. ... We don’t have any guys from Grundy County yet. I’d love for that to change.”
The Cougars are also seeking to fill a number of non-player positions. Rieck would like to get his coaching staff, which currently has three members, up to seven. The team also needs to fill spots in everything from its front office to ticket takers.
“These are all done by volunteers. It’s not a paying thing. We recently became a non-profit,” Rieck said. “This is for people looking to give our area something besides just high school football.”
The Cougars will play in the Eastern Conference of the RFL. The league officially announced the 10-team structure for its first season in February. Teams are located in Illinois, Indiana and Michigan. Rieck says some of them, like the Cougars, are brand new, while others are more established.
“We have worked hard since our inception in November to put together a great group of teams that will work hard to make The Royal Football League great,” RFL Vice President Krys Briggs said in a league press release.