Mertens, Lake Zurich hope for sweet return to St. Rita
Perhaps Lake Zurich football coach Luke Mertens should find a way to fit in a trip to Dunkin' Donuts before Saturday's Class 7A quarterfinal game at St. Rita.
It would be like old times.
Years ago, a trip to Dunkin' Donuts was part of his ritual before St. Rita games.
"That's a great childhood memory for me," Mertens said. "I'd get up on Saturday morning and me and my Dad would stop by Dunkin' Donuts and then head over to St. Rita stadium to watch the game.
"It was my dream growing up to play football at St. Rita."
Mertens will experience a homecoming of sorts when he takes the field with his undefeated Bears (11-0) for this playoff game at St. Rita. In fact, he's got all kinds of unique connections to St. Rita (9-2).
As a kid, Mertens grew up on the south side of the city in the shadows of St. Rita, and he couldn't wait until he got to go to school there.
His older brother Ray played football at St. Rita and started on the offensive line at center. Ironically, Ray played right next to Todd Kuska, who is currently the head coach at St. Rita.
Ray Mertens and Kuska graduated from St. Rita in 1990 when Luke Mertens was an eighth grader.
But the summer before Luke Mertens was to enroll at St. Rita as a freshman, the family unexpectedly moved to the city's north side. Mertens' mother then enrolled him at St. Patrick for high school.
Mertens played football at St. Patrick as a fullback, running back and linebacker, and he had fun. But it wasn't St. Rita.
"Not going to St. Rita, it was a crushing blow to me," said Mertens, who graduated from St. Patrick in 1994, played football at Northern Illinois for one year and then transferred to Valparaiso. "That's all I wanted to do when I was a kid, play football at St. Rita."
Eventually, Mertens got on the St. Rita sideline.
He coached there for three years as the quarterbacks coach right before he got his first head coaching job, at Lakes in 2005. Mertens was at Lakes for 12 seasons before being named the head coach at Lake Zurich several months prior to the 2017 season.
While at St. Rita, Mertens coached under Kuska, who was the head coach at the time and is now in his 20th season with the Mustangs.
"There are definitely a lot of emotional tie-ins for me with this game and St. Rita," Mertens said. "It's wild. I've gotten messages and e-mails from people I haven't seen from down there in 15 or 20 years, people I grew up with, telling me congratulations and welcoming me back to the South Side for Saturday's game.
"When the brackets first came out, my buddies from down there (coaches on the St. Rita staff) were texting me and saying, 'See you in the quarterfinals.' And now we're there. This will be my first time back (to St. Rita since leaving for Lakes) and I'm excited. It's going to be wild to be on the other side."
History lesson: There is an interesting history between Lake Zurich and St. Rita.
The teams have played each other twice in the playoffs, and both have gotten significant wins against each other.
St. Rita won the 2006 Class 7A championship by defeating Lake Zurich in the title game. And Lake Zurich reached the 2010 Class 7A state championship game by defeating St. Rita in the semifinals.
Today's current players were mostly first and second graders in 2006 and early middle schoolers in 2010, but they haven't needed to be schooled much on this history. They've heard about it many times.
"Our kids are very tuned into the series with St. Rita," Lake Zurich coach Luke Mertens said. "They've heard all the old war stories from alums and older brothers. They know how good St. Rita is.
"But our kids have risen to the occasion all season and I think they will this time, too. They know that St. Rita has a great tradition and is in the Catholic League, one of the best conferences in the state. They know St. Rita will be battle-tested. But we're in a very tough conference too. And we're battled-tested too. It's going to be a great game."