By BRETT MARSHALL

bmarshall@gctelegram.com

It was Week 6 of the 2008 prep football season and the unbeaten Hugoton Eagles came into Holcomb to face the equally-unbeaten Longhorns.

When the dust had settled in a monumental defensive struggle, the 'Horns had held off a gallant effort from coach Clint Merritt's visiting Eagles to post a 13-6 triumph in the battle of Hi-Plains League Division II foes.

This Friday, the two teams return to the gridiron in Hugoton to take up where the left off last year with one exception.

Hugoton returns unbeaten after five impressive victories while Holcomb, trying to build its way up from a grueling early-season schedule, sports a 2-3 record. Kickoff for the HPL contest is 7 p.m.

Hugoton's Merritt is all-too aware of how dangerous the Longhorns can be. Coach Jerry Johnson's team has lost to 3A powerhouses Hoisington and Scott City while falling last week to traditional 4A juggernaut Ulysses. The most recent loss saw the 'Horns go from a 20-20 halftime tie to a 42-20 setback to the Tigers.

"We're closer to being the team we want to be, but we're still making those silly mistakes that just keep us from having any consistency," Johnson said of last week's setback. "We have a couple of good drives going, throw and interception and then have a fumble near mid-field and they go in and score. We were only down by seven after three quarters. We just need to put more good plays together and then I think we'll see something better."

Hugoton's offensive explosion has been led by a devastating ground attack, with senior running back Caleb Gifford leading the way with 660 yards while averaging 7.2 yards per carry. He's not alone, though, as Keithan Martin has gained 419 yards on just 44 attempts (an average of 9.5 yards). The triple threat also includes senior Bubba Beltz (380 yards on 36 attempts, a 10.5 average). If that doesn't make things difficult enough, quarterback Zach Dunlap has rushed only 23 times but gained 139 yards (6-yard average).

"They're very good at the skill positions," Johnson said of Hugoton. "They score a lot of points and they haven't had to have many long drives. We'll have to have as much ball control as possible and want to establish that early if we want to be in the game."

Merritt, too, is impressed with what Holcomb has accomplished with a virtually all new starting lineup (just 2 starters returned from last year's 8-2 squad).

"They're very well coached and without a doubt are the toughest team we've played so far," Merritt said of the Longhorns. "This will be a great measuring stick for our kids and where we are with the program."

Merritt has taken the Eagles from the depths as his first two years they went 3-15. Last year, with his youthful players gaining experience, the Eagles finished 6-3 and just missed making the 4A playoffs in a season-ending setback to Ulysses. This year, they hope to break through that barrier.

"It's a tribute to their work ethic of how far we've come," Merritt said in describing his senior class. "They've stuck with what we've taught them and now it is that they are making the blocks and making the tackles. They've become very good athletes over the four years."

Merritt says he likes the chemistry of this year's team, noting that they hang out a lot of the time away from the football field.

"They go to each other's houses during the week, they laugh and joke around together and they're just fun to be around," Merritt said. "I think our success this year is different in that we know how close we were a year ago, just a few plays, to making the playoffs. This year, their patience and persistence has paid off. We didn't throw out the things that didn't work the first couple of years, we just got better at it and became better tacklers and blockers and runners."

Merritt said his squad was aware of Holcomb's winning tradition and wasn't taking anything for granted.

"This will have league championship implications and we also know that this a bridge to the playoffs for us," Merritt said of the last game before 4A district play begins next week. "Holcomb's losses have come against playoff-caliber teams. We're not fooled by their 2-3 record. They will be a challenge."

For Holcomb's Johnson, he sees the difficult stretch of the early season as the necessary growing pains to be prepared for the 3A districts which also start a week from now. That path includes Cimarron, Southwestern Heights and Lakin.

"We've made giant strides from the first week against Hoisington where we didn't look like we knew what we were doing," Johnson said. "We're getting better, how much better I don't know. But this will be another big test, that's for sure."

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Friday's Schedule

7 p.m. Wichita Northwest at Garden City; Sublette at Wichita Co.; Ashland at Moscow; Holcomb at Hugoton; Beloit at Lakin; Cimarron at Meade; Stanton Co. at SW Heights; Kinsley at Satanta; Elkhart at Syracuse; LaCrosse at Ness City/Dighton; Ulysses at Larned; Minneola at Deerfield; Rolla at Ingalls; So. Gray at Greeley Co.; Hill City at Healy/Western Plains; 7:30 p.m. Scott City at TMP-Marian.