Photos by Thom Larkin | Daily TidingsSouthern Oregon's Ben Baker drills the Dixie State quarterback during college football action Saturday afternoon at Raider Stadium. The Raiders won the game to finish the season 5-4. See more scenes form the game in the .

As the final seconds ticked off the clock of the Raiders 42-9 romp over the Rebels of Dixie State Saturday afternoon, a different atmosphere settled over the fans and players gathered on the turf.

In the middle of the field, circled around a still Gatorade-soaked head coach Steve Helminiak, stood the 14 seniors on the Raider football program. Some laughed and some cried as hugs and congratulations were passed around from person to person. It was a well-earned moment for a group that spearheaded one of the great Raider turnarounds.

"I think we are basically night and day different from where we came from," senior wide receiver Tim Greenidge said after the victory. "From the 1-9 (2005) season, to 3-6 last year, to now is quite a turnaround."

Quite a turnaround indeed.

For the five of the Raider seniors who spent their entire careers at Southern &

Greenidge, Adak Akau, Brandon Beatty, Kevin Holtzman and Jake Purcell &

this moment is a long time coming. As freshmen, they were expected to do big things. Fresh off an 8-3 season, back-to-back NAIA Independent Championships and a two quarterfinal finishes in the NAIA National Championships, some envisioned continuing Southern's unprecedented run to success.

No one really imagined what would happen next.

Under the guidance of then coach Jeff Olson the Raiders struggled to a 3-6 overall record, including blowout losses to Humboldt State and San Diego.

Then that off season Olson left the program to take an assistant coaching position at North Medford High School. Citing a need for more family time, Olson resigned after 25-years with the Raiders.

"Things were real though," said Purcell. "We had a lot of adversity in those seasons."

Southern Oregon brought in then interim-coach Shay McClure to turn things around. It didn't happen. With McClure at the helm, the Raiders went 1-9. In the lone bright spot on the season, the Raiders won their homecoming game against an overmatched Baker squad 44-29.

In an off season filled with controversy, McClure left the Raider program to become defensive coordinator at Humboldt State the week before fall training camp began. The move almost put the program in a nosedive. Months earlier, the Raiders hired Helminiak to guide a program with no recruits and virtually no budget. Although the challenge was formidable, Helminiak dove in head first.

One of the first orders of business was bringing in some fresh talent to the squad. Enter the rest of the Raider seniors: Austin Stack, Darrell Hutsona, Jared Elarmo, Jamie Richard, Greg Stewart, James Williams, Ricky Parker, Shane Van Zant and Jameson Whitehead.

All nine players transferred from other college programs and instantly provided leadership and experience to a Raider squad in desperate need of both.

"My goal from day one was to show what I could do," said Hutsona, who transferred from Washington State prior to this season. "I wanted to bring my talent to the table everyday and set an example for this program."

Each player contributed to the program's development, and under Helminiak's direction they managed a respectable 3-6 record. Although it was an improvement, it was still a far cry from where the players wanted to be.

Things changed last summer. The seniors got together and decided to put the fate of the program on their broad shoulders.

"Everything started this off season," Hotlzman said after Saturday's victory. "We (the seniors) got together and made a pact to do whatever it took to win."

The players spent much of their down time in the weight room, dissecting game film and setting the tone for the rest of the underclassmen in the locker room.

When the Raiders returned to practice last spring they knew something special was brewing. With a year of experience under Helminiak, the Raider program began a small turnaround.

"It all started at the top with the coaching," Stack said about Helminiak and Collins. "Hard work is what it came down to, and they helped instill that.

Purcell echoed those sentiments after Saturday's win.

"The new coaches really got us going in the right direction last season."

The Raiders made quite an impression in their first game of the year. Trailing Montana Tech late in Ashland, they staged a barnstorming comeback only to fall short on a dropped 2-point conversion with seconds left on the clock.

Setting the tone for the rest of the season, the Raiders won three of their next four games, dropping a 37-11 contest to NCAA Division I Idaho State.

The Raiders then dropped another heartbreaker at home to NCAA Division III and longtime Raider rival Linfield before getting walloped by Western Oregon 37-13 in Monmouth.

Carrying a 3-4 record and the possibility of another disappointing season, the Raiders made a decision to turn things around.

First up the Raiders had a showdown in Aracata, Calif., with Humboldt State and McClure. With bad blood pumping through their veins, the Raiders came out of a 3-3 deadlock at halftime and absolutely demolished the Lumberjack defense. Leading the way? Seniors of course.

A minute and half into the third quarter Beatty intercepted a Jack pass and returned it 52 yards for a score to put the Raiders up 10-3. The Jacks answered back with a touchdown drive of their own to tie the score at 10. Instead of letting up or relaxing, the Raiders stuck to their guns.

Hutsona took the ensuing HSU kickoff 94-yards to the house to put the Raiders up 17-10 and Southern never looked back. The Raiders ripped off 11 more points and won big, 28-16.

With a 4-4 record and the chance to end the year with the first winning season since 2003, there was nothing that needed to be said to this group of players about the importance of the homecoming showdown.

In the final game of their careers the seniors put on a show. Three of them &

173;"" Greenidge, Holtzman and Van Zant &

found the end zone, while others made plays all over the field. Stack and Elarmo added interceptions that halted two legitimate scoring opportunities for the Rebels.

And when it was all said and done, there was nothing left to say except for goodbye.

"I'm taking it all in right now," Holtzman said. "This is something to cherish for the rest of my life."

"Every year you feel like you're a part of the Raider family forever," Purcell added. "It's such a great franchise or dynasty. I'm glad to have been a part of it."

Stack agreed.

"It comes down to I love these guys," he said, standing midfield looking around at Raider stadium for the last time as a player. "I'll sure miss them a lot."



Sports editor Joe Zavala can be reached at 482-3456 x 224 or joe.