By BRETT MARSHALL
Clint Merritt will tell you that he took winning for granted on the football field. After all, he did play at Smith Center High School for legendary coach Roger Barta. A strong ground attack was the typical methodology for taking apart opponents for the Redmen during Merritt's years there (1993-96 with a 37-7 record). So when Merritt found himself arriving in Hugoton in the summer of 2006, little did he know how long the road would be with his new school, community and players. But his hard work, dedication and persistence paid off this season when he led the Eagles to their first regular season undefeated season since 1984 and to the Class 4A regional championship game where they lost to Buhler. "It was a great year in every respect," Merritt said. For his leadership, Merritt has been named The Telegram's 2009 football coach of the year. Reflecting, it was evident the memory of his first year was still very near to his heart and soul. "That first year was so much change and turmoil here," Merritt recalled. "Our coaches had different philosophies, the way we handled certain situations was different. It was just a difficult time." The reward, though, came as the team made progress each of the past four seasons, culminating with the 10-1 record this season. "We had some kids back then who bought into what we were trying to do," Merritt said of this year's group of seniors. "They became convinced that it was going to take time and that it would eventually come to fruition - and it did." Merritt's primary objective of improving on a daily basis took root with the Eagles and saw its first signs of coming of age in 2008 when the Eagles went 6-3. "As a coaching staff, you just want to see kids working hard, improving on the little things and then not over coach them," Merritt said. "I knew once we became better tacklers and better blockers that the wins would come." Merritt said he was pleased that the entire Hugoton community - could share in the success of this year's team. "Everyone rallied behind them and it was jut a great experience," Merritt said. He said he now can appreciate the significance of his Smith Center experience. "I didn't understand or appreciate what I had in high school," Merritt said. "As a coach, you try to build to that level and it takes a lot of sweat and there are times where you're not sure it's going to work. But in our case, it did." Merritt smiles when talking about his group of 15 seniors who stayed with him for four years. "They're a great model for anybody," Merritt said. "You can point to this group and see their work ethic, their commitment - this is how you do it." Merritt said two regular season games stuck out for him - the road victory at Pratt and the road win at Ulysses - as benchmarks for the team's success. "We talked about going 9-0, talked about winning big games on the road, talked about hosting a playoff game," Merritt said. "Both of those wins (Pratt, Ulysses) were huge for us and proved that we could get over the hurdle and win." Despite the Eagles lose such the group of seniors, Merritt feels the foundation has been laid. "What we've done this year is a great measuring stick of how far we've come," Merritt said. "It also shows how much further we've got to go to be able to do this week in, week out, year in, year out."