As players returned their equipment Monday inside the Big Red Building, Houston football coach Billy O’Neil sat in his office and reflected on the 2013 season. A campaign that began with competitive games and a victory against rival Cabool ended with six straight losses and a 54-0 defeat in the opening round of districts.

“We’ve got to be able to finish a season with the same progress that we started with,” said O’Neil, who completed his second season as head coach. “I take responsibility for that. I don’t know if it’s injuries or lack of wins, but the focus wasn’t there at the end of the season like it was at the beginning.”

The season climaxed for the Tigers when they beat Cabool 40-36 on Sept. 20 to snap a nine-game losing skid and spoil the Bulldogs’ homecoming night. But things quickly spiraled downward.

As injuries mounted and the schedule stiffened, Houston (1-9) was outscored 327 to 62 the final six weeks. The season concluded on Halloween night with a 54-0 loss to Strafford in the opening round of districts.

The Tigers played the final three weeks –– against the Nos. 4, 1 and 3 teams in the state –– without starting quarterback Devin Coulter. Second-leading rusher Nathaniel Alkire missed the final two games.

“I thought we were moving in the right direction early in the season,” O’Neil said. “We missed the leadership and presence on the field of those guys.”

One of biggest positives of the season was the resurgence of the Tigers’ rushing attack. The HHS double wing gained more than 2,000 yards on the ground –– the most since the 2006 state semifinal team.

Leading the way was fullback Trevor Merckling, who ran for more than 700 yards and 10 rushing scores. Alkire had another 618 yards and four scores in eight games.

Merckling had nine career carries for 14 yards before his breakout senior season.

“The dedication he put into the weight room was unbelievable,” O’Neil said. “Even through baseball season and the winter, he committed himself and it showed.”

Another player O’Neil singled out for his dramatic improvement was Dalton Hale, who led the team with two interceptions –– from Bobby Otwell of Mountain Grove and Liberty’s Jaelin Acklin –– and ranked among the team leaders in tackles.

“Every year there is someone who contributes that you didn’t expect,” O’Neil said. “This year, that was Dalton Hale. I think he became one of the best defensive backs in the conference.”

With the team’s top six rushers and top four tacklers graduating, O’Neil said the offseason will be critical to the future of a program that has gone a combined 11-70 since consecutive state semifinal appearances in 2005 and ’06. It begins, O’Neil said, with offseason conditioning.

“We’ve got to hit the weight room harder than we ever have –– even through we made great progress last winter and through the summer,” O’Neil said. “We’ve got to strengthen kids so they can get through an entire season without getting hurt.”

O’Neil believes participation is also key. He said there are many students in the district who could help the team if they would play. He said it’s up to the returning players to encourage classmates.

“We’ve spoken to them, but I don’t want to pressure them,” O’Neil said. “I’d like the returning players to talk to their peers who they know can help the football program. I know many of them focus on one sport, but if you talk to coaches at the next level, they look for a variety of skills from their athletes.”

A game-by-game look at the Houston High School football team’s 2013 season. The Tigers finished with a 1-9 record.

  • SALEM, LOST 48-16 – Two bad snaps on punts led to Salem scores as HHS lost the matchup for the 33rd straight time.
  • ST. JAMES, LOST 39-20 – Four first-half fumbles and eight penalties out-weighed the team’s 396 rushing yards.
  • CUBA, LOST 32-24 – Two fumbles deep in their own territory led to Cuba scores and kept HHS winless.
  • CABOOL, WON 40-36 – Kolby Walker’s defensive score gave the Tigers a third-quarter lead they never gave up.
  • THAYER, LOST 42-17 – The Bobcats scored twice in the final 28 seconds of the half to break open a 15-0 ballgame.
  • AVA, LOST 48-8 – On homecoming, the Tigers managed a third of their rushing average and seven first downs.
  • WILLOW, LOST 61-16Without quarterback Devin Coulter, the Tigers were held to a season-low 145 total yards.
  • MTN. GROVE, LOST 56-22 – The Tigers only trailed by 14 at the half before the state-ranked Panthers pulled away.
  • LIBERTY, LOST 66-0 – The No. 1 team in the state held HHS scoreless for the first time and had 502 yards of offense.
  • STRAFFORD, LOST 54-0 – Strafford’s Jacob Wade had four touchdown passes and ran for another as the Tigers’ season ended.

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