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Staying on course, Merrick motivated to sustain Sunset's success

Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Sunset new head football coach Damien Merrick took over for Faustin Riley in the spring, but says not much will change during his time as head coach. Merrick coached offensive line for four years under Riley.

Sans the shiny, eye-catching white helmets, very little about the Sunset football program will change under new head coach Damien Merrick this fall.

The Apollos will still confuse Metro foes with their assorted mix of offensive formations. Sunset will strive to strike a sound balance between pounding the rock and chucking it around the lot with its all-Metro quarterback Willy Pflug. And, though Merrick now has more chores and responsibilities on the sideline, the former Apollo offensive line coach will nevertheless expect Sunset’s big guys to be bruising and tough along the line.

Merrick — who took over for coaching legend Faustin Riley in the spring — doesn’t want to take the Apollo program off its ascending trajectory he and Riley jointly jump-started four years ago. Drastic changes won’t be made. In fact, Riley is staying on as Sunset’s offensive coordinator and primary playcaller to ease Merrick’s initial progression at the helm. Merrick merely wants to keep Sunset going in the right direction, maintain a steady desire to grind that Riley instilled in the program and above all, battle day-by-day, season-by-season and year-by-year.

“One of the things we’ve really tried to do over the years is create a culture of a willingness to work,” said Merrick. “We’re getting to the point where it’s the cool thing to work and put in the time. The X’s and O’s always look better when you have bigger, faster and stronger guys. But, it’s more of the mindset piece. Most important to me, is we compete every single week to the final whistle.”

The spread offense, which has become en vogue across the nation, has often been tagged with the dreaded “soft” stigma, meaning teams such as Sunset who operate the attack, flee from the ground game, pass the ball 70 percent of the time and flinch when a contest becomes physical.

It’s a stereotype the Apollos have dealt with for years, but one Merrick wants to jettison with a carnal nature that disproves any notion of “softness” associated with Sunset’s spread offense. Merrick — a former linebacker at Western Oregon University — believes the team that plays physical, assignment football, the scoreboard will work itself out in the end more often than not.

“We want to be viewed as one of the most physical teams out there,” said Merrick. “I’d like for us to start priding ourselves on that. A lot of times people look at our offense being so spread out and they view it as an automatic equal to being soft or pass-happy. We don’t believe that. We’ll take what the defense gives us. And, if we have to run the ball, then we’ll run the ball. As long as (Sunset) realizes you can be physical in any scheme on offense and defense, then we’ll be fine.”

In Merrick’s mind, with the wide range of athletic success Sunset’s experienced in sports ranging from basketball to swimming to baseball and lacrosse, there’s little doubt the football team can’t be a mainstay amongst the school’s top programs.

“That’s been the main challenge the past four years,” said Merrick. “Sunset’s had some really strong athletic programs that have a ton of success over the years. For us, we’re trying to mirror that success because it’s the same athletes walking the halls. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have the same level of success.”

Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Sunset new head football coach Damien Merrick wants the Apollos to play physical football and establish both lines of scrimmage when the season kicks off Sep. 5

The aforementioned smooth change of Riley handing over the reins to his young successor was by design. Both men believed the transition would be seamless, and so far, Merrick said it has been.

Rather than rocking the boat and bringing in a brand-new coach with a foreign staff, Sunset will continue to grow under Merrick’s guidance without the disruption of a major coaching change. Admittedly, Merrick said his nights and weekends are “filled up a with a few more emails,” but all in all, football-wise, the feel hasn’t been varied.

“We felt that’s what’s best for the kids, that there’s some continuity,” said Merrick. “I feel like we’ve really been steadily improving the past four years and hope we can continue on with that improvement. We’d like to consider ourselves competitive in each and every Metro League game we play. We know we play in a tough league, and we’d like to be in the top every year, be a playoff contending team and make it deep in the playoffs.”

The past four seasons, Sunset’s experienced a small taste of postseason football, only to be left with unsatisfying first-round exits. Yet, Merrick said Sunset had “great” weight room attendance in the winter and spring and noted the Apollos have taken a liking to working out four days a week during the summer as opposed to just three in seasons’ past. By Merrick’s estimation, 80 Apollos a day have been hard at work lifting weights, running wind sprints, participating in organized team activities such as seven-on-seven games on Tuesdays or the Metro Area Linemen Challenge at Tualatin High School.

Seniors such as Pflug, Seth Wilson and Joe Peterson have served as positive examples of what it means to be an Apollo football player and how someone in the program should act.

“The young kids see that and see what’s expected of them and what it’s going to be like in the future,” said Merrick. “If you’re willing to come out here (at the linemen challenge) in 90 degree weather and work for eight hours when you could be laying on the couch, that says something about you and it says something to your teammates,” said Merrick. Merrick spent the past four years at Sunset as the offensive line coach. For the 10 years prior to that, the 36-year-old worked under Riley and Bob Boyer at Beaverton High School where he coached the offensive line and wide receivers.

During his college-playing days at WOU, Merrick spent time coaching at McKay High School in Salem. A Salem native who moved to Beaverton, Merrick said Riley “became like a second father” to him, to the point that Riley married Merrick and his wife, Melissa. It’s a bond that’s lasted 14 years.

“We’ve been unbelievably close,” said Merrick said of he and Riley. “Between Scott Defoe (the head coach at South Salem) and Faustin, I owe just about everything I know about football to those two guys. I owe a ton to Faustin, because without him, I wouldn’t have had this opportunity to coach at Sunset in the first place or even entertain the idea of being a head coach.”



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