By Donald Heath
Special for the Effingham Herald
GUYTON – Justin Merritt told his former baseball player Jesse Osborne if Osborne ever got the head coaching job at South Effingham, he'd love to come back and work as his assistant.
Last year, Osborne was named the baseball coach and Merritt, true to his word and forever loyal, returned to help on the diamond.
"For me, servanthood isn't something you do, it's who you are," Merritt said. "I believe in two major things. I believe Jesus taught (us) to love God and love others, and that's what I try to do. I try to let that permeate everything I do. This is what I carry with me."
Merritt, 44, now carries servanthood to South Effingham a step further. On May 3, he became the school's new athletic director, replacing Nick Smith, who accepted a job as the district's maintenance coordinator.
Merritt, who has taught at SEHS for about 20 years, worked as a baseball assistant under Tony Kirkland and a football assistant under Bob Herndon.
Merritt left athletics for 10 years, first working as an associate pastor at Pine Street Baptist Church in Guyton before becoming the pastor at Excelsior Baptist Church in Metter.
During his time in ministry, he remained a history teacher at South. He was named the school district's Teacher of the Year for the 2019-2020 school year.
"Honestly, (the AD job) was appealing because it's South High," Merritt said. "When it opened up, I thought, 'this is really something I'd like to be part of. Maybe I have a little something to offer after being around this long.' "
Merritt, who played high school baseball at Miller County, links the Mustangs' past athletic prowess.
He was a young assistant in 2005 when Josh Reddick led SEHS baseball to the state semifinals. Osborne began playing at South in 2006 and the Mustangs went to two more state semifinals in 2007 and 2008.
Herndon's football teams won an average of eight games during his four-year span, including a program-best 10-win season in 2004.
"I don't feel like I've ever left this program because I've always been right here and athletics have been close to my heart," Merritt said. "A lot of these coaches have been good friends of mine. Coach Smith has been a good friend and I hope to learn a lot from him before he gets out of it.
"One of the things I'm learning is that we have a community that has supported the school system in such a great way and I'm looking forward to continuing that. We want to be part of the community and we want them to be part of us."
Within an hour after hearing the school board had approved his hiring, Merritt walked to the football stadium to watch the first day of spring workouts. The Mustangs have had just one winning football season since 2015.
Merritt said athletics can be turned around through hard work.
"I think we have the right coaches in place to do that," he said. "We have a good group of guys and women to take these kids to the next level. I'm excited to see what they're going to do."