By The Telegram

When Hugoton football coach Clint Merritt took over the struggling Eagles program in 2006, his numbers were low and experience was thin.

Things have changed.

With a senior class of 16, Merritt is counting on experience, added depth and size as the Eagles head into the season with high expectations.

That's because a year ago, the Eagles compiled a 6-3 record after going just 3-15 in Merritt's first two years when he was forced into playing predominantly freshmen and sophomores.

"We are fortunate in that we return all of our skill players from last season," Merritt said. "We have just two returning starters on the offensive line, so we will require some individuals to step up this year."

Last year, the Eagles started by winning their first five games, then dropped a hard-fought 13-6 decision to Class 3A playoff team Holcomb. From there, Merritt watched his team drop two of its three Class 4A District 14 games to Pratt and district champ Ulysses.

"We had a lot of good things happen a year ago, but our guys want to go the next step," Merritt said. "I don't think we'll be satisifed until we break through and make it to the playoffs and then see how we might be able to go."

Merritt pins his offensive hopes on senior quarterback Zach Dunlap. The quarterback will guide the run-oriented offense for Merritt after the Eagles averaged over 250 yards per game on the ground.

He has two experienced running backs to hand the ball off to in fellow seniors Caleb Gifford (6-0, 200) and Bubba Beltz (5-9, 160).

Gifford was the workhorse his junior season by finishing with 1,077 yards on 151 carries, a 7.6 average while scoring 11 touchdowns. Beltz was the perfect complement by rushing for 418 yards on just 81 carries, an average of 5.1 yards and crossing the goal line nine times. Dunlap completed 49-of-94 passes for 737 yards and five touchdowns but was intercepted eight times.

"We need to stay injury free to have a chance to build on last season's success," Merritt said. "This group of seniors has paid their dues when they were freshmen and sophomores. They had some success last year but this is the year they've been looking forward to."

With seven starters back on offense and six returners on defense, Merritt feels good about the prospects.

The line blocking concerns for Merritt will revolve around the improvement of seniors Brian Skinner (5-10, 225) and Armando Campos (6-0, 215). Underclassmen will likely fill in the remaining front line positions after preseason camp competitions. Merritt will also have senior Tate Reed (5-10, 180) at tight end.

On the defensive side, both Gifford and Beltz will be key players for the Eagles.

In three years as a linebacker starter, Gifford has become the Eagles all-time leading tackler (386) after posting 174 tackles a year ago (72 solo, 102 assists). Beltz was not far behind in 2008 as he recorded 43 solo tackles, 89 assists and grabbed six interceptions while being the lone junior on The Garden City Telegram's All-Area Top 11 team.