By BRETT MARSHALLbmarshall@gctelegram.com Caleb Gifford remembers all too well the difficulties of competing at the high school level as an undersized freshman for the Hugoton Eagles. Gifford and his freshman teammates in 2006 found themselves playing for a new coach – Clint Merritt – and learning an entirely new system. It wasn’t easy. “We just talked about sticking it out and we developed great leaders on the team,” Gifford said. “We got beat up that first year pretty good, but over time it helped us in the playoffs.” In his final season with the Eagles, Gifford was the springboard for helping the team to an undefeated regular season, the first such accomplishment since 1984.Hugoton then captured their first playoff victory at home against Clearwater before running into Buhler at the regional championship.During that 11-game run, Gifford (6-foot-1, 195 pounds), was spectacular as a running back and middle linebacker. He finished with 1,735 yards rushing (157.7 yards per game and single-season school record) and scored 27 touchdowns. He averaged 7.1 yards per carry to lead the powerful Eagles rushing game. One of the highlights in the regular season was a dramatic 20-19 victory over district nemesis Ulysses in which Gifford recovered a fumble late in the fourth quarter to set up the winning score. “It was pretty cool, especially after we beat Ulysses,” Gifford said. “We had only beaten them like once in 15 years so that was a big one for us.” Gifford was quick to praise his offensive linemen for creating the holes through which he could run. “They just blew holes for me all the time, you could drive a truck through them most of the time,” Gifford said. “This was a big season for us and we accomplished a lot.” Gifford said with his class being the first freshmen to play for Merritt, they could look back to the program’s growth and improvement with pride. “He molded us, made us the players we are today,” Gifford said. “It was always the plan to be the ones to get it started and I think we’ve done that.”On the defensive side, Gifford was equally a terror against the opposition. In his senior season, he recorded 74 solo tackles, 85 assists for a total for 159. “He’s certainly one of the best players I’ve coached,” Merritt said. “You couldn’t ask for a better player to be a role model for kids.” In his career, Gifford finished with more than 3,700 yards rushing and is the school’s all-time leading tackler with over 500 stops. “The defensive line did a great job of getting penetration into the backfield and that made it easier for me to get to the ball carrier,” Gifford said. “We just always had 11 guys flying around to the ball and that made my job easier.” Gifford is undecided about where he will be attending college as he is getting started with the recruiting process.