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From the Archives: Taking a journey through the Southland Raiders’ historic 1986 football season; part 1

By MICHAEL MURRAY
ATR Sports Editor
michael.murray@americustimesrecorder.com

Editor’s Note: As Americus Times-Recorder readers likely know, we, at the ATR, are very proud of our area’s rich tradition of sporting excellence. Most recently, in our celebrations of the history of Americus and Sumter County’s athletes’ prowess, we have shared archived articles on several historic teams from Americus High School.
In this series, however, we will be discussing Southland Academy’s epic 1986 football season, in which the Raiders capped off a five-year streak of region championship victories to win the Academy’s first state football title. Though the Raiders would go on to win two more state football crowns throughout the following decade, it’s safe to say that the team’s first title victory was a very special accomplishment for the team and the school.
Going through the ATR’s archives, I have found a bounty of articles detailing the Raiders’ rise to the top, most of which were penned by then-ATR sports editor, Ron Evans.
At the beginning of the season, according to reports, the Raiders were thought to be a team in transition, as the school had lost several talented players from the previous year. By the end of the team’s first match-up, head coach Loveard McMichael, along with the rest of the team’s coaching staff and fans, knew that they were onto something special. Just how great the team would turn out to be, however, remained to be seen.
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During the week of August 24-30, 1986, the front pages of the Times-Recorder’s issues were peppered with tragic news stories; including articles on Lybian leader, Moamar Gadhafi’s alliances with the now defunct USSR, fanning the flames of the cold war; the death of legendary sculptor, Henry Moore; the hijacking of Pan Am flight 72 by Palestinian terrorists; and a series of articles on the burgeoning crack cocaine epidemic that seemed to be growing more troublesome in the United States each day.
Inserted into the August 27, 1986 edition of the ATR, however, was a breath of fresh air for local sports fans; the newspaper’s football preview. The preview included updates on what football fans could expect to see on the gridiron in the coming months, whether it be in person on Friday night or on the television over the weekend. The edition included interviews with several athletes and coaches who had once called Americus home, and many who still did, ranging from big names in the NFL like Kent Hill (an Americus who was preparing to enter his seventh season with the Los Angeles Rams), to Jimmy Hightower, a former Americus High School football coach (certainly no stranger to state championship victories) who was, by that point, working as the head coach for Georgia Southwestern College’s football team.

From the Southland Academy 1986-87 yearbook:   Pictured above are the members of the 1986 Raiders coaching staff. From left: Gary Rhodes, Willis Jones, Head Coach, Loveard McMichael, Don Marchman, Gary Rhodes, and Jerry Perkins.

From the Southland Academy 1986-87 yearbook:
Pictured above are the members of the 1986 Raiders coaching staff. From left: Gary Rhodes, Willis Jones, Head Coach, Loveard McMichael, Don Marchman, Gary Rhodes, and Jerry Perkins.

The preview also included a breakdown of what local fans might expect from the Southland Raiders.
Portions of this interview are shared below.
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McMichael optimistic in rebuilding year

By RON EVANS
ATR Sports Editor

“Things look pretty ‘bare-boned’ at Southland Academy. However, Head Coach, Loveard McMichael is still optimistic that he has the tools to build another winner.
“The rest of the SEAIS Region 1-AAA thinks so too. Southland got the preseason nod from the other region coaches in the Coach’s Poll. The Raiders have won the region crown for the last five years.
“Southland, 11-1 last year, returns just four starters on offense and defense among 14 returning lettermen. The Raiders lost 13 seniors off the state finalist team.
“Again, McMichael is fairly confident of the season the Raiders are to embark on. ‘We feel pretty good about the people who can step in and fill a position,’ said McMichael, who is entering his third year with a 20-5 overall mark. ‘We should have a set lineup by the first game and things might change a little after that. We’ll have to work in a lot of backups but we won’t sacrifice a game for it. We have to work too hard to let one get away.’”
The article went on to say that the team’s most prolific quarterback in the school’s history, Mike Ragsdale, had graduated the previous year and had left some pretty big shoes to fill. Evans wrote that McMichael seemed confident that up-and-coming quarterback, Stephen Summers, was poised to fill that void.
In the 1986 team’s backfield would be the previous year’s ATR All-Area co-pick for most valuable offensive player, Chan Reeves, who had spent the 1985 season rushing for 931 yards on just 105 carries. Joining Reeves in carrying out toting duties would be running backs, Paul Kim and David Roach.
“The linemen will be solid with good size,” the article continued before naming Ray Clark, Bud Harrod, Chip Sanderlin, Rusty Harvey, Johnny Greene, Brad Pope, and Jeff Rix, who would soon be charged with protecting the quarterback and paving the way for the team’s running backs.
The article stated that the Raiders’ defensive team would consist of Harrod, Sanderlin, Kim, Roach, and J. Greene, working alongside Phil Hart, Ken Greene, Earl Bass, Doug Davis, Tracy Gay, and David Harris.
“We should be pretty solid on defense but even more so after our first game …” the article quoted McMichael as saying. “We should be competitive, but we can’t have any injuries… This is kind of our rebuilding year but there’s not any more pressure than in any other season. We will just have to find the right kids for the right positions.”
Two days later, McMichael and the Raiders would prove that they were capable of doing just that when the team took the gridiron for their season curtain-raiser on Aug. 29, facing Savannah Christian (SC).
The next day, on the first page of the Times-Recorder’s sports section, Evans published another piece detailing the upcoming season opener titled, “Southland faces Savannah Christian: Tough Raider opener”.
“Everything is there for a game hard to predict…” Evans wrote, anticipating a heated match-up between Southland and the SC Red Raiders. “For this game, the Raiders versus Raiders is a toss-up.”
The article went on to say that the two teams had faced off in the previous season’s opener in a match which the Americus team had won by a 33-0 margin. Conversely, two seasons prior, the Savannah squad had defeated the Americus Raiders in the state championship 22-16. All of the makings of a bitter rivalry were lining up as both teams would head to what was then dubbed, “Raider Field” in Americus to settle the score.
“Savannah Christian should be a fine team this season,” the article quoted McMichael as saying. “They are returning a lot of players and use the two-platoon system, which might say something about the Red Raiders’ depth… Their alignment is very tough to run against. They’ve used it for years and years.”
When the big day finally came, the local Raiders certainly didn’t disappoint their fans.
In the Aug. 30, 1986 edition of the ATR, Evans had the pleasure of printing an article titled, “Southland has no trouble in 37-12 victory”.
“So much for the grudge match as the Southland Raiders waxed visiting Savannah Christian for the second year in a row 37-12… Friday’s match-up was supposed to be close with Savannah, which was 4-5 last year, returning a number of starters. Southland, on the other hand, finished last season 11-1 and stopped in the semifinals of the state playoffs and looked to be rebuilding this season.
“Instead, Southland looked to be playing its third game of the season as the Raiders controlled the Wishbone [formation] of the Red Raiders and ran through their run-prevent defense.
“’I’m surprised by the lopsided score, but not by the win’” said [McMichael], who closed the series with Savannah Christian 8-5. ‘The linemen got off the ball really well and the speed of the backs was the difference. We felt it was really important to get a good effort out of the linemen and get some confidence.’
“The line did so well that Southland got a pair of 100-yard efforts out of Chan Reeves, seven rushes for 115 yards and two touchdowns, and Paul Kim, eight [rushes] for 110 [yards] and one [touchdown]. David Roach also added 57 yards on seven carries and scored once.
“In all, Southland rushed for 315 yards and tacked on 44 more through the air for a total of 359. Savannah Christian did gain 268 on the ground and 285 total, but only had 107 total yards for the first half while trailing 28-6.”
The article went on to detail the previous day’s action, saying that the local Raiders had scored on their first drive of the game and the Savannah Raiders responded in kind on their return drive, but had their two-point conversion attempt stopped by Summers.
“From there, it was all Southland,” the article concluded as Evans went on to describe the excitement of a 60-yard kickoff return by Kim, aided by expert blocking from Clark that wouldn’t end until Kim found himself in the end zone with Southland ahead for good in the match.
The Raiders followed with another six-play drive “capped off by a one-yard hurdle into the end zone by Reeves… Summers powered in the two-point try.”
The article quotes Summers as saying, “We didn’t even run everything that I thought we were going to run. We are gearing up for First Presbyterian (the Raiders’ next opponent). We are ready for them… We ran well because we ran so many traps… We kicked out on their ends and Paul and Chan ran well.”
Evans wrote that the Raiders added one more six-pointer in the first half when Summers found Jeff Rix for a 32-yard scoring pass. On the Red Raiders’ return drive, Southland recovered a fumble at their own 26 which Reeves promptly ran back on the first play from scrimmage for his second touchdown of the night.
The following week, the Raiders would face off against the previous season’s state champions, First Presbyterian Day. Evans included another article in the ATR’s sports section on Sept. 4, 1986, titled, “Raiders get shot at state champions” to help inform local readers of the impending showdown.
In the article, Evans wrote, “This game will also be a rematch of last season’s state semifinal game in which First Presbyterian defeated Southland 13-7. The Raiders had won their regular-season encounter 14-7.
He went on to say that the First Presbyterian team had lost 22 senior players to graduation the previous year.
“’This is a big rivalry, said [ McMichael]. ‘They lost a lot of seniors, but they are going to be good. They always are.’”
McMichael sang the praises of several Raider team members, including Kim, Reeves, Roach, and Summers for their performances in the previous game.
That Friday night, on Sept. 5, the Raiders showed that they were more than capable of toppling the state champions.
The following day, ATR sports writer, Mike Mead, submitted an article titled, “Southland whips FPD” for publication in the Times-Recorder.
“The Southland Raiders took advantage of First Presbyterian miscues to erase a 7-0 half-time deficit and claim a 21-7 victory Friday night [in Macon],” the article stated.
“First Presbyterian… coughed up the ball six times and lost the ball four times. Southland turned two of those recoveries into touchdowns.
“The field conditions made footing treacherous due to heavy rains the night before as Southland fumbled five times and lost the ball twice.
“However, it was the Raider defense, led by nose tackle, Bud Harrod, that held its ground.
“FPD got on the board first late in the second quarter, capitalizing on a Southland fumble. The Vikings marched 74 yards in 13 plays [to score] and give the hosts a 7-0 half-time lead.
“Southland had frustration of its own early as the Raiders marched with the opening kickoff to the Viking 20 before fumbling the ball away.
“In the second half, it was all Southland.
“The Raiders took advantage of their defensive gems in the form of keeping the Vikings hemmed deep and pressured the punter into mishandling the snap. The result was a Raider ball on the 10 yard-line. Two plays later, Chan Reeves scored from nine yards out to tie the game. Roy Clark added the first of three extra points.
“The Raiders took the lead when Tracy Gay recovered a fumble at the 42 two plays later. Seven plays later, the Raiders again scored, this time from seven yards out for a lead that the Raiders would never relinquish.
“The last score came with 3:20 left in the game after another fumble recovery with Summers scoring from the one yard-line to cap an 11-play, 56-yard drive.
“Reeves finished the game with 15 rushes for 59 yards and Paul Kim added 51 more on nine carries.
“’This was a good win for us. We’ve had a lot of bad luck here over the years,’ said [McMichael]. ‘We got a strong effort from the team in the second half and that was key.’”
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Just like that, the Raiders had earned the first two of the many, many victories that they would see during that season. Unbeknownst to the team and their fans at the time, the team’s scores would continue to improve and they would soon ride that wave to success all the way to the state championship in Macon.
Be sure to join us next week as we continue to explore our archives and celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the Southland Academy Raiders’ first state title victory.
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Here at the ATR, we are very interested in hearing from the team’s fans and players from the 1986 season. If any fans or former players would like to contact us and share memories of this exciting year on the gridiron, please feel free to call our office during business hours or email ATR sports editor, Michael Murray, at michael.murray@americustimesrecorder.com. We look forward to hearing from you.