In high school sports, there are few traditions better than Senior Night.
It’s guaranteed tears, hugs and lots of emotion as senior athletes get to take an opportunity to celebrate their final home game with their parents, family, teammates, coaches and fans. All the hard work, all the practices and games over the last four years are about to reach the final chapter.
On Wednesday night at the Althoff-O’Fallon volleyball match, this tradition was raised to perfection — yet it took a painful set of circumstances to put the whole thing in motion.
Looking forward to her third year as a starting outside hitter at Althoff, senior Rachel Mertens tore both the ACL and MCL ligaments in her right knee during a July 2 basketball workout.
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Just like that, her senior volleyball season was over. She had surgery Sept. 1, but kept coming to most practices and all the games to help out however she could.
Mertens spoke to Althoff coach Sara Thomas Dietrich about finding some way to contribute during a match. One thing led to another and the coaching staff and Mertens hatched an idea.
They started chanting her name and we all got choked up. It was hands down the coolest experience that I have ever had as a coach and even as a player there. Words can’t really explain how cool it was.
Althoff volleyball coach Sara Thomas Dietrich
On Senior Night, with one of the largest crowds all season and facing one of the area’s top teams, Mertens would get a chance to serve in a match.
“It was something we had talked about at the beginning of the season,” Mertens said. “I started it as a joke, like ‘I’ve got to serve, maybe I’ll get an ace and at least have a stat.’”
Mertens and her parents, Phyllis and Keith Mertens, had already participated in the traditional Senior Night ceremony before the match.
But no one anticipated what happened next.
Wearing her knee brace, Mertens walked onto the court early in the first set and prepared to serve for the first time all season.
The entire gym exploded in cheers. Not just the Althoff student section, but Althoff fans, O’Fallon fans and both teams on the court. Some of the O’Fallon players were also Mertens’ friends and club volleyball teammates.
This was Rachel’s moment, the one she had waited for ever since learning a knee injury had robbed her of that senior season.
Take that, torn ACL.
I walked out and started crying and had to stop myself. I was so paranoid I was going to miss that serve, but it meant the world to me to get to do that.
Althoff senior Rachel Mertens
“When she went in it was like a burst of emotion from her to her parents and the whole crowd,” Dietrich said. “They started chanting her name and we all got choked up. It was hands down the coolest experience that I have ever had as a coach and even as a player there.
“Words can’t really explain how cool it was.”
Mertens couldn’t stop crying, even though she still had to serve.
“The student section was chanting my name. I walked out and started crying and had to stop myself,” she said. “I was so paranoid I was going to miss that serve, but it meant the world to me to get to do that.”
Mertens didn’t just serve, she went on a three-point service run. She entered the match later and served again, earning two more service points. A couple times when the ball came back in her direction, teammate Emily Myatt and others made sure that Mertens wouldn’t have to risk further injury to make a play.
Those who believe high school sports have lost their magical appeal weren’t at the Althoff gym that night.
They didn’t see how much it meant for an injured player to get back on the court one more time.
This wasn’t about club volleyball. This wasn’t about whose kid is the best player or earning a scholarship. This was wasn’t about winning or advancing in the playoffs or viral videos.
It was finding one specific way on one specific night to make one girl’s senior season a little bit brighter.
“I just wanted something to give me a positive note for the year because it’s been pretty tough,” Mertens said. “One serve would have been enough, but I was lucky enough (Coach Dietrich) let me do it a couple times.
“The coaching staff and teammates have been there for me through this whole difficult journey and it really means a lot.”
Phyllis Mertens said she and her husband were blown away by the show of support. Their family suddenly seemed to include everyone in the gym cheering for their daughter.
“It really was so inspiring, I just couldn’t get over it,” she said. “It was very moving. I don’t think there was a dry eye left in the place. We were overwhelmed with the support, how strong she was through the whole season and the support of everybody standing up for her.”
Rachel Mertens cried four times, but they were happy tears. She knew her friends and family were behind her, but the whole gym?
That moment left a permanent memory.
“It meant the world to me,” she said. “I can’t thank all of them enough for everything they’ve done throughout the year. It’s something I know I’ll never forget and it’s a positive part I know I’ll get out of a year that’s been really tough.”
She had her senior season taken away, much like Highland High senior running back Andrew Winning. Winning played in five games and was among the St. Louis area rushing and scoring leaders before suffering a season-ending ACL surgery.
A leg injury also cost Althoff football and soccer senior standout Donovan Gagen the bulk of his final season. A teachers strike knocked the East St. Louis football team out of the playoffs.
East St. Louis has one home game remaining on its schedule and the Flyers could still have their own Senior Night for Illinois recruit Tre’vour Simms and his senior teammates.
Let’s hope that, like Mertens, they get that opportunity.