These former Marines are helping build a culture for the Richwoods football team

Richwoods head coach James Ulrich watches as the Knights battle the Peoria High Lions on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022 at Richwoods Stadium in Peoria.
Dave Eminian
Journal Star

PEORIA — James Ulrich is leaning on his Marine experience as he tries to build a culture within the Richwoods football team as its head coach.

It's a work in progress, as the Knights discovered when they ran into a superior force Thursday in Peoria High School, which belted Richwoods, 66-12, in a Big 12 Conference game at Richwoods Stadium.

"Football is not just a physical game," Ulrich said. "You don't have to be bigger or faster or stronger than your opponent. In many ways, it's more a mental game. How do you prepare? How do you embrace challenges and face adversity?

"You win and succeed by being committed."

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'Their culture sets a tone'

Richwoods has a significant presence of former Marines on and off the football field.

There is first-year school principal William Robison, a former Marine.

There is a Marine Corps JROTC program at Richwoods that has grown from 79 students in 2018 to 200 today under the leadership of two Marines, Gunnery Sergeant Miguel Chavez (ret.) and First Sergeant Shawn Martin (ret.).

"The MCJROTC program was the physical fitness national champions among ROTC schools last year," Richwoods athletic director Ron Dwyer said. "That's impressive, in many cases they were going up against military schools. We have ROTC kids running the chains at football games. Their leadership is tremendous. Athletically, the kids in the program you can almost pick them out, because they tend to be the leaders on our teams.

"Their culture sets the tone for the entire student body."

Richwoods JROTC members run the chain gang on the sidelines of the Richwoods/Peoria High football game Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022 at Richwoods Stadium in Peoria. The Knights fell to the Lions 66-12.

And there is Ulrich, whose father, also James, is commander at the American Legion Post 2 in Peoria, and also served as a Marine.

"I got in the Marines partly because of his legacy in it, followed him," Ulrich said before leading the Knights onto the field to meet Peoria High. "But I also wanted a teaching job, and I felt having the Marines as part of my history would make me a better candidate."

Ulrich served as a Marine from 1995-99. He deployed to Haiti. He was part of an anti-terrorism team in Virginia. He served in the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines at 29 Palms.

"A big sand box," he said, chuckling. "The Marines can help a young person, I think they need direction. It's a great opportunity to get experience seeing the world, meeting and working with people from different backgrounds.

"I'd recommend going into it and specializing in a job you can apply in civilian life later, build yourself a career."

Those are decisions to be made in the future for his players. For now, he's trying to develop football skills and build a team concept on the field.

"You know, high school is a very short time," Ulrich said. "I tell our players all the time, 'College recruiters come talk to you, maybe give you a chance to play, but if you don't produce they move on to the next guy. You are their meal ticket.'

"They don't wait for you. So be prepared to face the challenges that come with that."

The Richwoods Knights do their traditional dog pile before the start of their varsity football game against the Peoria High Lions on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022 at Richwoods Stadium in Peoria. The Knights fell to the Lions 66-12.

The Lions roared

The challenge that came from the opposing sideline Thursday was fierce.

The Lions, No. 5 in Class 5A in the AP poll, put up 46 points in the game's first 15:21 and went on to clinch an IHSA playoff spot.

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"We trying to clinch a playoff spot and we did that," Peoria High coach Tim Thornton said. "We wanted to be District 150 champions and we did that. We want to be city champions, conference champions, and fight to win a state championship, too.

"I thought in our game last week, our execution was at about 85%. Tonight it was all there, though. We still have some technique things to clean up, but we played the way we needed to play tonight."

Peoria High running back Malachi Washington ran 13 times for 205 yards and four touchdowns, and added a 54-yard touchdown catch — all in the first half. He finished with 18 carries for 223 yards and five total touchdowns.

Quarterback Tino Gist was 8 of 13 passing for 200 yards and three touchdowns in the first half. He finished 12 of 20 for 225 yards and four TDs.

Kenny Rutherford added a 58-yard TD run, and TQ Webb caught three passes for 54 yards and two touchdowns.

Peoria High (6-0, 4-0 in conference) had 575 total yards. Richwoods (1-5, 1-4) had 178 total yards. The Knights got a 6-yard touchdown run from Acosion Morris and field goals of 37 and 28 from kicker Zenon Rule.

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Peoria's Malachi Washington runs for a touchdown against Richwoods in the first half Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022 at Richwoods Stadium in Peoria. The Knights fell to the Lions 66-12.

Short yardage

Peoria High senior defensive lineman Lucas Armstrong was flagged twice for unsportsmanlike conduct in the first quarter, and ejected. That draws an automatic one-game suspension. … The Lions next host Bloomington at Peoria Stadium. … Richwoods moves on to host Manual. … Metamora receiver Broderick Schroers, who was stretchered off the field with an air splint on his left leg in a game last week, did not suffer a fracture, according to Redbirds coach Jared Grebner. "He is doing well," Grebner said. "He will make a full recovery. He has the possibility of returning this season."

Dave Eminian is the Journal Star sports columnist, and covers Bradley men's basketball, the Rivermen and Chiefs. He writes the Cleve In The Eve sports column for He can be reached at 686-3206 or Follow him on Twitter @icetimecleve.