When he was a boy, Nick Merkle says his parents wouldn’t allow him to play football because they were concerned about his safety.
They finally relented when they became concerned about the other kids’ safety.
“I always wanted to play, but they didn’t let me until I was in fifth grade because they were afraid I’d, like get concussions and stuff,” Merkle said. “So I played soccer for a little while and, one day I got a yellow card for tackling a kid.
“So they were like, OK, now it’s time for you to play football.”
Coach Rich Angarano and Brookfield’s 2016 football team are very much appreciative.
After graduating, perhaps, one of the school’s best classes in program history and then losing to-returning tailback Harrison Manesis to a freak thumb injury just before the preseason, the two-time defending Class M state champions owe Merkle — and, by extension, his parents — much of the credit for their 2-1 start.
Even without Manesis, who is slowly working his way back into the lineup after suffering torn ligaments in his thumb playing catch on August 10, Brookfield’s been able to effectively run its offense behind Merkle.
The 6-foot, 180-pound senior three-sport athlete barely played any offense last year, especially not at quarterback. Yet, he leads the team with nearly 600 total yards from scrimmage — 240 on the ground and another 354 through the year — and has accounted for four touchdowns in three games.
They’re not eye-popping statistics, to be sure, but Brookfield has needed very inch as it attempts to prove it’s still one of the best teams in the SWC while vying for for a fourth-consecutive Class M playoff berth.
Brookfield heads to Blue and Gold Stadium in Newtown Friday for a showdown with undefeated Masuk in, perhaps, the most intriguing SWC game in Week 4. (Masuk’s Benedict Field is being renovated).
“He’s playing great,” Manesis said of his fellow senior teammate. “I’m throroughly impressed with what he’s doing. He’s running hard, hitting the hole hard, everything he’s doing is impressing everyone here. He’s going to keep it up and I know he’s going to do great things for us this week.”
It should be no surprise. After all, Merkle is one of his school’s best athletes. In addition to football and lacrosse in spring, Merkle has also been swimming since he was 4-years old and, last year, earned all-state as a member of Brookfield’s Class M runner-up swim team.
Merkle swam the third leg and was the only junior on Brookfield’s state championship 200-medley relay team. He swam first leg on Brookfield’s fourth-place 200 free relay team. He earned top five in the 200 breaststroke.
“It’s a pretty tough sport,” he said. “It’s such a rewarding sport, though. Swimming is definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It puts your body to the test, and when you come out on top, and when you achieve your goal it’s so satisfying. It really teaches you hard work.”
The lessons served him well last season. He was one of the few underclassmen to earn a starting spot on last year’s senior-dominated lineup which included All-Staters Bobby Drysdale, Austin Reich, Nick Acquanita, Nick Seis and Dane Borges. Merkle played safety and averaged nearly four tackles per game and had three interceptions.
“I saw my opportunity to play safety, so I took it and ran with it,” he said. “We had a great defense last year and I was glad to be a part of it.”
For the Class M championship victory over New Fairfield, however, coach Rich Angarano and his staff switched him to defensive end and the coach credits his athleticism for helping the team contain New Fairfield all-stater Zach Tripodi in the second half.
“If you look at the film and you’re a football coach, you’ll see how he strung the play out and their running back couldn’t get going,” Angarano said. “He was a direct result of a lot of that.”
Merkle also backed up two-year starter Bobby Rosigno at quarterback, but never saw any time behind center because of Rosigno’s durability. Merkle officially got his first varsity action as the quarterback in the 2016 season-opener at Notre Dame Fairfield. He threw for a touchdown and ran for another in the 17-13 victory.
Brookfield’s offense stagnated in the second half of that game, however. The trend continued in Week 2. This time, the Bobcats fell victim to a 13-point comeback and a 21-13 Weston victory.
“After we beat Notre Dame we thought we thought we’d go 10-o and all of that stuff, then Weston comes in and they beat us and we’re like, Woah, looks like we’re not all that,” Merkle said. “It was a reality check. It showed we need to put in the work. That week leading up to Bunnell it was a totally different mindset at practice. We’ve got something to prove.”
Merkle had his finest offensive game last week in a 31-21 victory against Bunnell. He ran for 149 yards and three touchdowns. But this time, Angarano and offensive coordinator Bryan Muller also had their senior air it out for the first time all season. Merkle completed 9 of 18 passes for 124 yards and a touchdown.
“He’s a very good runner,” Angarano said. “And he makes some good decisions at the point of attack, which is a good sign for a quarterback. Now, Coach Muller is doing good job with him, teaching him the mechanics of the throw. Last week was the first time in a long time that we went up top because we think (Merkle) sees the field very well.”
Merkle is quick to dismiss the idea that he’s the secret to Brookfield’s success. “If you look at my game, you might say I was the highlight of Bunnell or whatever,” he said. “But if you look at the tapes, it was the linemen. On one touchdown, I didn’t even get touched. It was all downfield blocking.”
That’s a good sign for Brookfield since its offensive line has been overhauled by graduation. Of the current starters, senior left tackle Billy Rodrigues is the only player that saw significant time last year. Linemen Mike Mascolo, Brandon Capusano and Matt Bickelhaupt are also all seniors. Only one, center Ryan Melby, is a sophomore.
Merkle is a fervent a disciple of Angarno’s motto that everyone takes care of their one-eleventh, as in one of 11 positions on a team. “Coach likes to say that and it’s true,” Merkle said. “That game, everybody was doing their ‘one-eleventh.’ If everybody does their one-eleventh, we’ll be all right.”
Getting Manesis back will only enhance Brookfield’ strength. He saw his first game action of the season vs. Bunnell, albeit only on defense with a large club to protect his left hand. “It was kind of hard to wrap up, but I knew where I had to be,” Manesis said. “I was glad to be back out on the field.”
Brookfield has a bye week following Friday’s game vs. Masuk which will give him extra week to heal up.
For now, Brookfield will be doing what it has done for the last three weeks: rely on Merkle and its other emerging playmakers, senior Niko Droukas (424 all-purpose yards, 2 TDs) and sophomore Conor McVey to get the offense moving against what Angarano said is a excellent Masuk squad.
“I think Masuk is a very good team,” Merkle said. “But we’re not going to change our preparation. We’re going plan whether they’re the No. 1 team in the state or the worst team in the state. We’re going to go out we’re going to play, good hard, tough football and we’re going to see what happens.”
…New Milford quarterback Tyler Sullivan will miss this week’s showdown with No. 8-ranked Newtown at home. Sullivan, who’s thrown for over 871 yards and nine touchdowns, went down with a leg injury late in the first half of the Green Wave’s 28-19 victory over Pomperaug.
Coach Larry Badaracco said the team is hoping to get Sullivan back by mid-October, after the team’s bye week. Sophomore Gabe Reyes will get the start vs. the Nighthawks. He came on for Sullivan and completed 5 of 10 passes for 99 yards and a touchdown. “No excuses,” Badaracco said. “Only solutions.”
…Bunnell did indeed play without quarterback Mike Castelot in its 31-21 loss to Brookfield. He was diagnosed with a fracture in his foot and had surgery on Sept. 22, though coach Sean Mignone said the family’s hope is he can real and be back playing within a month, at least. Like the rest of the SWC, Bunnell will be greatly aided by having a bye
Until then, Mignone said he will continue to use quarterbacks by committee around freshman Tyler Phommachanh — the youngest brother of former Bulldog defensive lineman Jordan Phommachanh and former Harding quarterback Taisun Phommachanh (now at Avon Old Farms).
Bunnell used Phommachanh and also regular receivers Kyle Bannister, Brett Bogdwicz and Zhayire Fernandes in wildcat formations. Phommachanh took a majority of snaps, however, especially as Bunnell tried to rally in the second half.
Bunnell plays Pomperaug (1-2) at home on Friday.
“We’re going to continue to try a lot of different things,” Mignone said. “Our first takeaway (from the Brookfield loss) was that nobody’s going to feel sorry for us. When you lose your quarterback it’s obviously a very important part of our team. But this is the opportunity for everyone to step up and show us what they’ve got.”
…While sophomore tailback Jack Roberge got the headlines with a 13-carry, 101-yard, four-touchdown performance, Micky Zuk had a breakout game in Masuk’s 49-7 victory over Notre Dame-Fairfield. He caught eight passes for 111 yards and two touchdowns. QB Matt Hersch was efficient, completing 20 of 26 passes for 218 yards and three touchdowns.
…Masuk’s defense had allowed just 22 points this season, second only to Newtown’s 19.
…As a league, the SWC will take its CIAC-mandated bye next week.
Player of the Week
Kendall Greene, New Milford
This would have been a good place for Nick Merkle, who ran and passed Brookfield to an impressive victory over Bunnell. But we’ll go with the breakthrough sophomore tailback who saved the swashbuckling Green Wave from an upset bid by Pomperaug with a 98-yard kickoff return touchdown. He also caught four passes for 157 yards and two touchdowns.
Game of the Week
Brookfield vs. Masuk (at Newtown), Friday, 7 p.m.
Look, we’ll be keeping one eye fixed on New Milford for sure. But, honestly, this one’s more intriguing. These two clubs have a fierce rivalry that dates back years when they both contended for SWC championships — including the famous Debate That Will Never End between the two eventual state champs in 2008. Masuk has lived up to expectations so far. Brookfield, considering it has been without Harrison Manesis at tailback, has possibly exceeded its expectations (or, not, given the program’s recent pedigree). The Bobcats are certainly underdogs, but this is still the toughest team Masuk has faced yet.
Inside the Numbers
18Years since New Milford started a season 3-0. That was the 1998 season and the Green Wave’s quarterback, ironically, was current Pomperaug coach James Reed, whose team New Milford defeated to reach the milestone. (Sadly, Reed’s 1998 New Milford squad went 1-6 the rest of the way. When was the last time the Green Wave went 4-0? Let’s see them beat Newtown, then we’ll dig into the history books.
The Top 5
- 1. NEWTOWN (3-0, Last Week 1) >> Perhaps its time to brush off another contender?
- 2. MASUK (3-0, LW 2) >> [Whistles while they work]
- 3. NEW MILFORD (3-0, LW 4) >> Great start aside, losing Sully hurts. Even with him, this would take a supreme effort. We shall see.
- 4. WESTON (2-1, LW 5) >> The Trojans are starting to build up some momentum here.
- 5. BROOKFIELD (2-1, LW NR) >> Nick Merkle is playing above and beyond expectations.
JUST MISSED >> Bunnell 2-1.
Newtown at New Milford, 7:00 p.m.
Pomperaug at Bunnell, 7:00 p.m.
Weston at Bethel, 7:00 p.m.
Brookfield at Masuk, 7:00 p.m.
Stratford at Barlow, 7:00 p.m.
New.Fair. at ND-Ffld, 3:00 p.m.