When Zackery Merritt joined Whitehaven High’s football program two years ago, he had already heard of all the tradition and success that program had produced.
“When I think back to it now, I think about how intense and motivated you had to be for big games and rivals,” Merritt told MemphiSport.
In Merritt’s estimation, that the Tigers, who were heavy favorites to capture a second consecutive TSSAA Class 6A championship, compiled a 9-3 mark this past season essentially was unsettling for the junior linebacker.
Among the reasons is that like most of the Whitehaven faithful, Merritt believes the Tigers, despite entering the 2013 campaign as Shelby-Metro’s No. 1-ranked team, undersachieved in a year in which they returned the nucleus of last year’s state championship squad.
Whitehaven, a year after going 15-0 for the school’s first state title, started the 2013 season 6-0 before enduring an array of struggles at the season’s halfway point. The Tigers, in fact, witnessed their 21-game undefeated streak (dating back to the 2013 season) come to an abrupt end in a 49-27 loss to Sacred Heart-Griffin of Springfield, Ill. That showing was followed by a 13-10 upset loss at cross-town rival East two weeks later, a game Merritt sensed exposed an array of weaknesses for one of the area’s premiere teams.
In a nutshell, that the Tigers dropped three of its final six outings is something by which Merritt hopes will inspire the team, particularly in the offseason.
“I say that because I know my team can do way better than 9-3,” Merritt said. “Those three games we lost, we played well, but we weren’t focused enough. When we lost our first game, we lost by a lot. And then we came back to Memphis and we played East, then we had multiple mistakes. It was disappointing, but it wasn’t as big as losing six games compared to three. No one wants to lose that many games.”
Especially a team such Whitehaven, a program in which making deep postseason showings has become a customary trend in recent years.
While Tigers had fallen well below expectations last year after being eliminated by White Station in the second round of the Class 6A playoffs, Merritt admittedly assumed part of the responisibility for the team’s struggles the second half of the season. For the 17-year-old, 205-pounder, last year brought about a new role for Merritt, most notably on the defensive side of the ball.
That’s because Merritt had to embrace occupying the linebacker position, something the Tigers coaching staff believes he handled with ease. To his credit, Merritt was a force for a Whitehaven defense that alllowed just 16 points to the opposition through the season’s first six games. Having started each of Whitehaven’s 12 games, Merritt amassed 20 tackles, five sacks, and 10 tackles for loss, many of which resulted in yards loss for the opposition.
Credit his poise, assertiveness, and his willingness to upgrade his mechanics in the offseason as the reasons Merritt flourished in his new role this past season. Fortunately for him, the tireless hours he devoted to individual workouts and watching film ultimately left a favorable impression on the coaching staff.
How else to explain why one of the starting linebackers’ position was Merritt’s job to lose months before the start of the 2013 season?
“I knew I was going to have to work harder to get the starting position,” Merritt said. “I didn’t want to lose that position after we won the state. I always played on the defensive side of the ball ever since I was eight years old.”
After a year in which he drew rave reviews on defense, Merritt’s skills as a high school standout haven’t gone unnoticed by college scouts. So far, he has garnered interest from Southern Arkansas University, Central Arkansas University, Kentucky Christian University, and Jacksonville University, among others. Expect that slim list to increase, considering this rising senior is scheduled to attend a slew of camps and combines this summer, most notably at Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, and Austin Peay State, among others.
As Merritt’s father, Willie Merritt, tells it, the sky’s the limit for his son, whom he said has blossomed into a quality athlete for one of the area’s finest prep football programs.
“He understands his potential, Willie Merritt said. “He’s focused on getting bigger and stronger and faster. He clocked in a 4.6 last year. He’s chose this sport on his own. We didn’t push him to it. He understands what it takes to be successful.”
An attribute that benefited Whitehaven mightily this past season.