From the moment Eric Mertens stepped in to play varsity quarterback as a freshman because of an injury to the starter, Althoff coach Ken Turner had a special feeling.
Especially since the opponent was archrival Belleville West and Mertens had never even played quarterback until the previous summer.
Welcome to the bright lights, kid.
"It was kind of a bad game for a guy that's never played quarterback before to get pushed into," Turner said. "I know he was nervous, but at that point we didn't have anyone else to go to. His career started right there and we never looked back.
"He just continued to get better and better."
In four years on the varsity and roughly 2 1/2 years as a starter, Mertens (6-foot-3, 205 pounds) laid the groundwork for some impressive accomplishments.
He helped Althoff reach the Class 2A state championship game as a junior and the 4A quarterfinals as a senior.
As a senior this fall, he set a school single-season record by throwing for 2,902 yards, completing 199-of-346 passes for 33 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
Mertens was named Belleville News-Democrat Small-School Football Player of the Year in voting by area coaches.
He leaves Althoff with school records for completions (500), attempts (898), passing yardage (7,043) and TDs (72).
The passing yardage ranked 12th all-time according to Illinois High School Association records and the touchdown passes rank 13th all-time.
He threw for more than 2,000 yards twice in his career, including 2,655 yards and 22 TDs as a junior.
"Growing up baseball was always my favorite sport and I didn't play football until my eighth-grade year with the Little Devils," Mertens said. "It was surprising my freshman year coming in and starting and everything. Things went pretty quickly."
Mertens gravitated toward the quarterback position during 7-on-7 workouts the summer before his freshman year. He had been an offensive and defensive tackle with the Little Devils.
"I liked it a lot from the moment I started," Mertens said.
Turner said Mertens came to high school as a tall freshman with plenty of room to grow.
"We figured he's probably be a lineman because he was so big as a freshman," Turner said. "But he was throwing to Coach (Matt) Lauber one day and we liked him. He actually threw it pretty well and after the first few throws, it was obvious that he could throw the football.
"He picked everything up quickly and since then he's played for four years."
Because he came to the position later than most, it took a while for Mertens to learn the finer points and to avoid turnovers. Through work with Turner and assistant coach Tony Sieben, he improved each season and finished his senior campaign strong.
"They were a big part of it," Mertens said. "With football and playing quarterback, there's always obstacles to overcome. You've got to try to fight through them and get to the next level. The toughest thing was the consistency with your throwing motion and mechanics."
Besides Althoff finishing second in the state last season and playing in the final West-Althoff game, Mertens said one of his best memories was sharing a hug with Turner and greeting the fans after a 2012 semifinal victory over Camp Point Central.
"We went over and thanked all the fans for their support over the years," Mertens said. "It was just a great feeling knowing we were going up to state."
So was the game-winning drive against Casey-Westfield in the quarterfinals, with Mertens' passing taking the Crusaders down the field to set up a game-winning field goal by Donovan Gagen.
"It was real tough to lose in the finals, but you've always got to look at the bright side," Mertens said. "It was a really great season and I'm really proud of everyone on that team."
His coach was extremely proud of him.
"In elimination games and playoff games, that kid was tremendous," Turner said. "In games we had to win to make the playoffs or in playoff games, he did his best work. He's a gamer and in big games he always came through for us."
Mertens made sure his academic success more than kept up with the athletic side of his career at Althoff. He got a 30 on his ACT exam and ranks 11th in his class, preparing for a career in accounting.
"It's important to focus on everything in the classroom because you can't play football forever," Mertens said. "It started with my parents, they instilled a lot of dedication and hard work and made me focus."
Mertens has interest from several colleges. He has visited Ball State and Northwest Missouri State and also has talked with Indiana State, McKendree and Quincy.
"If I had my choice I would hope to play at a I-AA school, that would be ideal," Mertens said.
"We've got to find a school that runs a pro-style type of offense," Turner said. "I think the process is taking too long, but he's my guy and I know he'll find a good school. He hasn't scratched the surface of how good he's going to be because it will only be year five of him playing the quarterback position."
Carlyle coach honored
Longtime Carlyle High football coach Randy Dooley, who led Carlyle to a 9-2 record and second round of the Class 2A playoffs, was voted New-Democrat Small-School Coach of the Year by his peers.
Despite having fewer than 25 players on the roster, Dooley oversaw a high-powered spread offense that helped the Indians finish 8-1 in the regular season.
After beating Eldorado 29-14 to open the playoffs, Carlyle lost 19-14 to eventual state runner-up Staunton.