By BRETT MARSHALL
Taking care of business.
That's what the Hugoton Eagles football team has been doing during the 2009 high school season. And they've done it impressively.
They've won all eight of their regular season games, including the last two Class 4A district contests, by an average score of 49.3-4.5.
So when the Eagles take the road for their final regular season game Thursday night at Ulysses, they will be facing a team that has been their district nemesis for years, including a year ago when the Tigers put an end to the playoff hopes of Clint Merritt's team, 27-6.
This year, both teams have clinched playoff berths for next Tuesday's bi-district games and are now playing for home field advantage. The district champion gets a home game and the runner-up must travel, most likely to Wellington.
"A home playoff spot is on the line and that makes it important," Merritt said. "We haven't looked ahead at all. We know Ulysses will be the best team we have faced this season and we know they are well-coached and will play physical."
While Hugoton has rolled through its schedule — 24-3 over Guymon, Okla. and 21-0 against Pratt are the closest games they've had — Ulysses has overcome a daunting first-third of the season schedule which saw them lose to Class 6A Garden City, Class 5A Hays and unbeaten Class 3A Scott City. Since then, coach Jason Kenny's team has powered its way to five consecutive victories and lots of momentum.
"We're getting better, blocking better and defensively we're swarming to the ball better," Kenny said. "We like to play physical and I hope that's the team that shows up Thursday because that's what we have to do."
Kenny also knows that his defense will have its hands full with the high-powered running game of the Eagles that has averaged nearly 350 yards per game. That bruising running attack has been led by senior Caleb Gifford, who has gained 1,134 yards on just 150 attempts (7.6 average) and tallied 21 touchdowns, six of which came in last week's 65-0 rout of Kingman.
"He's an all-stater, the best back we've seen," Kenny said of Gifford, a 6-1, 190-pounder. "But their option stretches you to the edge. This year's Hugoton team is just much better than a year ago, they're better up front. We're going to have to take care of the ball, we can't turn it over and have a chance to win. We have to maintain some ball control to keep it out of their hands."
For the Eagles' Merritt, he knows the game pits his upstart program against the tradition-laden Tigers.
"They have had success year-in and year-out and will be our biggest test," Merritt said. "They're a very good football team and they play physical. They like to spread the defense out and force you to play the entire field. They run the ball well."
Ulysses' offense, which struggled early with only 15 combined points in those opening losses, has matured and has put up 45.4 points a game in the five victories, including 70 against Kingman and 60 against Larned.
"(Bryce) Moral makes good decisions and is a definite threat to throw," Merritt said of the Tigers' quarterback. "He does a good job of hitting the open receivers."
Kenny agreed with Merritt's assessment of his offensive leader.
"He's running the ball better than he did at the start of the year and that sets up the passing game for us," Kenny said of Moral.
Merritt said he hopes his team took a good lesson from last year's game in which they were in the thick of it until turnovers plagued them, allowing Ulysses to pull away to its three-touchdown victory.
"I think we know how to play in a game that matters," Merritt said. "We're not making the same mistakes we did last year and that makes a world of difference. Last year's game, other than a learning lesson, doesn't have any impact on this year's game. Both teams are different than they were a year ago. But we're going into a tough environment, on the road and need to win a big game. It should be a great atmosphere."
In other major area games Thursday, Lakin will go for an outright Class 3A district title when the Broncs host Southewestern Heights and Scott City attempts to complete an undefeated regular season when it hosts Ness/Dighton in another Class 3A district match-up. Greeley County can earn a runner-up spot in its Eight-Man I district with a win over Deerfield.
Area Football Schedule
7 p.m., Satanta (0-8, 0-2) at Sublette (5-3, 1-1) ; Moscow (4-4, 2-2) at Haviland (6-2, 3-1); Syracuse (3-5, 0-2) at Wichita Co. (1-7, 0-2); Holcomb (3-5, 1-1) at Cimarron (1-7, 0-2); SW Heights (4-4, 1-1) at Lakin (5-3, 2-0); Stanton Co. (3-5, 1-1) at Elkhart (4-4, 2-0); Deerfield (4-4, 2-2) at Greeley Co. (6-2, 3-1); Rolla (0-8, 0-4) at South Gray (5-3, 2-2); Quinter (7-1, 4-0) at Western Plains (1-7, 0-4); 7:30 p.m., Hugoton (8-0, 2-0) at Ulysses (5-3, 2-0); Ness/Dighton (5-3, 0-2) at Scott City (8-0, 2-0).
Prep football — 7 p.m., Dodge City at Garden City.