Randolph Southern School, which opened in 1967 and has fielded countless state championship teams, will close at the end of the school year --- but not without leaving behind countless memories from its athletic teams. Who could forget the many Randolph Southern-Terrell Academy rival battles in football? Or the baseball team's improbable run to the state title a few years back? Then there's the RSS softball team, which made the state title series the past two seasons, and the basketball program, which solemnly walked off the floor after playing its final game in program history Tuesday night. (Photo illustration by Danny Aller and Laura Williams)
SHELLMAN --- Cameron Barley walked slowly across the gym floor, all alone like the last soldier. His cap was pulled tight and low on his head, and he stared at the floor as he trudged away. He was dressed in jeans and a red Patriots shirt. You could hear his footsteps.
His eyes were blood red. His face covered in tears. He could barely talk. He was a mess, a wreck. He was a 17-year-old kid whose world had just crashed and burned all around him.
It was over.
The game, the season and everything he had come to know and love about Randolph Southern.
It was all gone.
Barley was the last player to leave the gym in Dasher on Tuesday night after Randolph Southern had played its final basketball game. He left in tears.
They all cried, buckets and rivers of tears.
A day earlier, late Monday night, Barley and everyone in Shellman got the news that Randolph Southern, which opened in 1967, was going to be closed at the end of the school year. Less than 24 hours later, the girls and boys basketball teams had to play in the Region 3-A playoffs at Georgia Christian, knowing a loss would end their seasons.
It’s tough to make jump shots when your heart is aching.
Both teams lost.
So it ended here, 140 miles from Shellman on a strange court with a surreal feel to it and the saddest of sad endings. As the boys walked off the court for the last time, a man in the stands held up a sign that read, “I HEART RSS.” The fans stood and applauded the kids and the school.
It would have been a heartbreaking end — but everyone’s heart had already been broken.
“I love this school,’’ Barley said after the game, fighting back tears as he spoke. “I don’t cry much, but this got to me. We didn’t win a game this year, but I wouldn’t give up this season to go anywhere else and win a state championship ring. I’d rather be here with these kids at this school. The whole school, it’s been a family to me.’’
They all feel that way about Randolph Southern, a small and charming little country school in Shellman, where the kids were loved and nurtured and the memories run long and deep.
“We’ve got farmers, doctors, lawyers and Indian chiefs here. We’ve got a little of everything,’’ said Jo Hixon, who was in Randolph Southern’s first graduating class in 1971 and has worked at the school more than 17 years. All three of her kids went to Randolph Southern. Her twins, Jeni and Kim, played for the 1994 girls basketball team that won the state title. Jeni now lives in Americus and Kim lives in Atlanta, where she’s the girls basketball coach at Marist High School. They’re 36 now, and it still hurts.
“It’s been emotional for everyone,’’ Hixon said. “Kim wouldn't even talk to me for a day after it happened, and Jeni told me she cried herself to sleep when she heard the news.’’
There had been rumors for months that the school might close. Enrollment had fallen, and there are only 115 kids from K-4 through high school. But rumors are rumors, and when the hammer fell Monday night it was devastating.
“It was like a punch in the stomach,’’ said Parker Rigsby, a senior who has starred for the last four years on the softball, track and basketball teams. “We all had a sense it was coming, but when it came no one was prepared for it. It feels like you lost a family member. No one knew what Randolph Southern meant until it was gone.’’
The kids were courageous on the court Tuesday and the girls almost won, which would have guaranteed a berth in next week’s state playoffs. They trailed, 44-42, with 12 seconds left when Gabi Jackson’s 10-footer skipped around the rim, bouncing in and out before finally spinning cruelly away. Jackson finished with 18 points and talked about the ordeal afterward.
“There was a lot of pressure,” said Jackson, a senior. “We knew we were the last basketball team (in the school’s history to play a game). We wanted to go as far as we could go. It was a long ride to the game, and I was just thinking about everything. I was thinking about everything the whole ride. It’s all over Facebook. You can’t get away from it.’’
Then she all but broke into tears.
“I was thinking about how I won’t be able to send my kids there,’’ she said. “My mom went there. My brothers and sisters went there. I wanted my kids to go there. They won’t have that chance. I can’t imagine going to another school. I just wish there was more we could have done.”
‘Randolph Southern is in my blood’
Randolph Southern was one of those places where generations shared the same hallways. Many of the children who are there now had parents who graduated from Randolph Southern — one more reason the cut runs so deep, spanning eras.
“My grandfather was on the first board at Randolph Southern,’’ Rigsby said. “The gym is named for my aunt, Eva Ruth Rigsby. For me, Randolph Southern is in my blood.”
There are 20 seniors in the entire school, and those kids will finish at Randolph Southern, but it’s going to be a long and difficult time for the younger kids who will have to find a new home.
“We’re just in the unknown now,’’ said Sarah Torbert, whose son Alex plays for the boys basketball team. Sarah and her husband, Scott — who have two sons (Alex, a freshman and Scotty, a sophomore) at Randolph Southern — watched the game Tuesday, knowing this is just the beginning of a difficult adjustment for the family.
“They love their school, and they love the kids who go to their school. This is our second family,’’ Sarah Torbert said. “We just put our heart and soul into it.’’
There are all those little tortures that lay ahead, those significant moments in a high school child’s life that will never be the same.
“It’s just a difficult time,’’ she added. “I’ve got one son who was getting ready to get his class ring and another who was getting ready to get his letter jacket. Those are accomplishments (they won’t have now).
“The ring isn’t going to be red anymore. It will be another color. It won’t be red.’’
The parents and kids all handled Monday night’s news in different ways as word spread around town.
“It was very difficult for everyone — and emotional,’’ said Terri Langford, whose daughter, Madison, a sophomore, plays for the girls basketball team. “Most of them have been there since K-4. They are really a strong close-knit group.’’
Langford said when they heard the news Monday night, her daughter’s best friend and teammate, Alana McCook, came over.
“Alana came over and they had a sleepover and cried together,’’ Langford said.
Late Monday night after the news hit, the girls team sent a text message that everyone shared.
“It was an emotional team message,’’ McCook said. “It was pretty emotional for everyone. We just wanted to play our hearts out for Randolph Southern and win it for Randolph Southern.’’
McCook, a tough sophomore point guard, played a gutsy and inspirational game Tuesday and then talked about how the last 24 hours felt like she’d been in a fog.
“It was like a dream,’’ McCook said after the game, tears in her eyes. “I don’t even remember half the stuff that happened (Monday night). We all cried. We cried together. I didn’t go to sleep until about 1 or 2. I never thought it would come to this. I don’t even know how to say it … ”
There is speculation that many of the underclassmen at Randolph Southern will gravitate to Dawson and Terrell Academy. The two schools, which are located roughly 13 miles apart, are rivals — but very friendly rivals.
“I think most of my class will end up going to Terrell Academy,’’ McCook said.
Tracey Green, the boys assistant basketball coach, said that was general feeling and that “Terrell Academy’s enrollment is probably going to go up next year,” adding everyone is crushed by the school closing.
“You just hate what happened,” he said. “You hate it for the kids and the teachers.’’
It all began with basketball
Tuesday’s games were symbolic for many reasons. Randolph Southern started its athletic program in 1970-71, and basketball was the first sport. Believe it or not, both the girls and boys teams won the state championship that year.
The school has such a rich tradition in basketball. The boys basketball teams won state titles in 1971 and 2005, and they finished second in the state in 1978 and 1990. The girls won four straight state titles from 1971-1974, and then won again in 1988 and 1994. They finished second in 1981, 1983 and in 1985. All those banners hang in the gym, which is affectionately known as “The Barn.”
“It’s been so depressing,’’ said a teary-eyed Blake Lamb, a senior and three-sport star like Barley who played his last game Tuesday. “It’s hard knowing they will never play another game in The Barn, knowing we are the last team.
“It’s been surreal. You don’t want to believe it.”
Blake’s mother Wendy is the headmaster at Randolph Southern, where she has been at the center of all the pain that has washed over the school and the community of Shellman, which has a population of just over 1,000 residents. She has had her moments and has cried her own river of tears.
And her students took notice.
“I’ve done a pretty good job of keeping my emotions in check,’’ Jackson said after the game. “But seeing the headmaster break down. That just got to me. She’s always been so strong.’’
Wendy Lamb said the school wants to celebrate the basketball teams in The Barn once last time and she is working on plans to have other events between now and the end of the school year to make the final days at Randolph Southern feel special.
“We’ve talked about making it the best of the rest of the year, about making it the very best,’’ she said. “We’re looking to do some things, a lot of different things, to do some celebrations at the school.’’
It has been brutal for everyone involved.
‘It’s gone forever’
Wendy Lamb said she fought off the emotions, but when the school held an assembly Tuesday morning, there was nothing she could do. She couldn’t fight it any more.
“I needed to talk to them,’’ she said. “We had an assembly in our auditorium, and they were coming in and I was standing there in front of them. And when the seniors came in, I just broke down. It’s hard to describe it. People describe it as being a lot like being at a funeral.’’
Lamb, who graduated from Randolph Southern, has been at the school more than 17 years as a teacher and the last two as the headmaster. She attends every game, and Tuesday she even helped out by keeping the girls scorebook.
At one point, she stopped, looked up from the book onto the court and softly said: “It’s the end. No matter how you look at it there won’t be another basketball game.”
“It’s been very tough on everybody. It’s even harder on the families and the kids. We’re like a big family. Just knowing what we had all those years and knowing they won’t have that. It was very emotional for everyone. It was very hard for them to play basketball (the next day).’’
It’s not just a school that is closing, it’s way of life — a rich, sweet, honest, God-fearing place that held on to old-fashioned values when everything seemed to be falling apart everywhere else.
It’s a place where the kids weren’t just given an education, but where the teachers nurtured the children who grew up there — many of whom spent most of their lives walking the hallways and classrooms of Randolph Southern.
“Most of these kids have been here since preschool,’’ Wendy Lamb said. “You watch them grow up. You think of them as your children.’’
Many of those children sent their children to Randolph Southern, and when the alumni heard Monday the school was closing, many talked about coming back one more time for one last embrace of all the school meant to them.
That’s one reason Rigsby was teary-eyed — as well as angry — after the game Tuesday.
"I will never be able to come back to my school,’’ she said. “It’s gone forever. We will not be able to come back to our school. There’s nothing left. It hurts.’’