BELLEVILLE — Eric Mertens understands the scrutiny and extra pressure that comes along with playing quarterback.
Every offensive play begins with the ball in the quarterback's hands. Make a mistake and the quarterback knows where the blame is headed.
Put the ball where it is supposed to be and then he's just doing his job.
"The best part about it is the decision making," said Mertens, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound junior who has thrown for 3,690 yards and 36 touchdowns in the last three years for the Althoff Crusaders. "It's just fun reading the defense and coming up to the line seeing what you've got. Making the most out of every play.
"You've just got to take what they give you."
Mertens got his first taste of varsity football as a freshman. He was thrust directly into the middle of the heated Althoff-Belleville West rivalry when starting quarterback Jabari Taylor was injured.
Althoff lost 20-6 and Mertens was OK, leading a scoring drive in the fourth quarter but also throwing three interceptions.
Welcome to the big time.
"Scary, to say the least," Mertens said when asked about the experience. " It's really slowed down a lot since then. Nothing seemed too big after that."
Mertens split time with Taylor last season as a sophomore, then became the man in charge this season. He has thrown for 2,204 yards and 19 touchdowns, completing 153-of-272 passes to help Althoff (9-3) reach the Class 2A semifinals.
The Crusaders are at home at 2 p.m. Saturday against Camp Point Central-Southeastern (12-0).
"It makes all of our jobs easy because you tell him something one or two times and he's got it," Althoff coach Ken Turner said. "Sometimes when he does not take that right read, he will tell you as he comes to the sideline before you can tell him.
"He understands what he's doing out there."
That was evident on Althoff's final drive Saturday that set up Donovan Gagen's game-winning 40-yard field goal with 0.4 seconds remaining.
Althoff trailed 17-16 and took over on its own 34-yard line with 53.8 seconds to play. Mertens was 4-for-5 while picking his way down the field with short passes that helped get the Crusaders to the 23-yard line, leaving things up to Gagen for the game-winner.
"It was big, we knew we had a boot (kicker) so we could cut down the amount of yards we had to get," Mertens said. "We just went out and executed, we practice that every week, the one-minute and two-minute drill.
"The rhythm was working good and I'm glad how it ended up."
Mertens and the offense didn't force things, another important factor.
"(Casey) dropped back deep because they didn't want to give up a home run and lose like that, so we just fought it underneath," he said. "The receivers kept making plays and getting extra yards after the catch."
Mertens has thrown 16 interceptions, just three fewer than his touchdown pass total. However, nine of those came in losses against extremely aggressive defenses in Belleville West and Marion and some were on tipped balls
He still makes the occasional bad throw or wrong read, but has made big strides.
"I think he has a lot more confidence this year," receiver Nick Hawthorne said.
In the last four games, including three straight playoff victories, Mertens has completed 56-of-85 passes for 816 yards and seven TDs with just two picks.
"Early in the year, there were a lot of bad throws," said Mertens, who coaches and teammates alike say is his own harshest critic. "You've just got to cut down and minimize turnovers. Reading the coverages and the defense and the decision making are key improvements this year."
Also making Mertens' job easier is a deep, talented and experienced group of receivers. Someone is usually open on every play and the Crusaders believe the next TD is only a play away.
"In our scheme, it allows us to get the ball in space and make plays," said Althoff junior receiver Luke Frazier. "Merts does a great job of finding all of us. It's fun to be a part of it. He's a really smart quarterback. He sees coverages really well, he's athletic and that goes unsaid sometimes."
Mertens has always been athletic and still plays three sports, including baseball and basketball. But he's always been big for his age, leading to a delay in the start of his quarterbacking career.
The weight requirements in youth football kept him out of the backfield for a time.
"I played on the line in little league," he said. "It's fun playing quarterback and I'm glad they gave me the opportunity to do it here."
Mertens knows he has plenty of work to do, but schools such as Ball State and Northern Illinois have shown some early recruiting interest.
"Football's probably my favorite sport, just the teamwork and the family atmosphere you've got with the guys," Mertens said. "Going to battle with them every week ... there's nothing else like it."
Contact reporter Norm Sanders at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2454.