Track and field standout and recent Santa Margarita Catholic High School graduate Nikki Merritt can add yet another award to her long list of senior year accomplishments that put an exclamation point on a record-setting high school career.
The sprinter and hurdler was presented with the Trinity League Athlete of the Year Award at the Orange County Register 2018 OC Varsity Athlete & Coach of the Year Awards held in June at the Marconi Automotive Museum in Tustin.
Honoring the some of the best high school athletes and coaches in Orange County, the annual event was highlighted by inspirational speeches given by USC long snapper and Orange Lutheran High School graduate, Jake Olson, as well as MLB champion with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the Los Angeles Dodgers, Mickey Hatcher.
Presented by the Diocese of Orange, the Trinity League Award is selected by the OC Register’s sports writers and editors from a list of outstanding Trinity League athletes. Merritt was presented the award by Bob Gibson, host of Catholic Sports View, who highlighted her exploits on the track and her character off the track, the latter of which was most meaningful to the runner.
“It’s such an honor to receive this award,” said Merritt. “It shows that it not only honors your athletic ability, but also your character, which means so much more to me, honestly.”
Merritt helped lead the Eagles to their fourth consecutive CIF-SS championship with Division 3 first place finishes in both the 100- and 300-meter hurdles as well as the 100-meter race and the 4×100-meter relay at the CIF finals meet. That accomplishment ranks as Merritt’s favorite moment of the year.
“I would definitely say that winning the CIF title for the fourth year in a row with my team was an amazing experience,” said Merritt. “I love the team aspect of track and being able to share that experience with my team.”
Merritt also won the 100- and 300-meter hurdles races at the Orange County Championships meet, and at the CIF State meet, she finished third in the 300-meter hurdles and sixth in the 100-meter hurdles.
She holds the second-best 100-meter sprint time in Orange County history, clocking in at 11.82 seconds at the Trinity League prelims meet. Merritt’s 13.93 time in the 100-meter hurdles at the CIF-SS Masters meet is the third best time in O.C. history. And her 300-meter hurdles time of 42.28 accomplished at the state meet is the fourth best time in county history.
“This season went by so extremely fast,” said Merritt. “As a freshman, I couldn’t imagine going through four years of tough workouts and everything. But getting to this point, finishing out my senior year as I did, it’s such an amazing experience.”
Deciding on Santa Margarita as her high school was an easy choice for Merritt, who had two siblings there ahead of her, including her older sister, Kaitlyn, an accomplished pole vaulter who is now at Stanford University.
“It was definitely an amazing experience being able to be on the track team with my sister my freshman year,” said Merritt. “My sister definitely helped me through all of it, and she honestly is my inspiration. So seeing her accomplishments, it was a great path that she put me on.”
Having been on her elementary and middle school track teams, Merritt knew track was the direction she would take in high school athletics. But she didn’t decide on the hurdles until the summer before her freshman year. She credits the Santa Margarita coaching staff, specifically Dave and Sean Zeitler, with helping her achieve her goals.
“The Zeitlers are amazing coaches, and I owe everything to them,” said Merritt. “They not only take the time…with each athlete individually to help understand what will push them to be their best, but they also take the time to get to know you personally. They’ve worked so hard with me and with all of the athletes at SM.”
For Sean Zeitler, who was also honored that evening with the 2018 OC Varsity boys track and field Coach of the Year award, coaching an athlete such as Merritt is a joy and a privilege.
“We as coaches are the beneficiaries of being able to see her compete,” said Zeitler of Merritt. “We’re really the lucky ones.”
The Trinity League Award was the second time Merritt was honored that night as she also received the Register’s 2018 OC Varsity girls track and field Athlete of the Year award. Taking her own path for college, she will be headed Duke University in the fall to compete for the Blue Devils.
“It’s extremely humbling,” said Merritt. “There [are] so many amazing athletes, just in Orange County, and seeing how many of them are here tonight, it’s just an amazing experience being surrounded by all of them.”