It was the first day of winter football workouts at Mountain View High School in January 2018, but Sean Delmage and Jack Mertens opted for the both’s winter recreation sport of choice: skiing.
Delmage, who had just recovered from a compound fracture in his leg, ecstatic to prove himself as Mountain View’s starting running back in the fall, with Mertens, a first-team all-league selection, set to return as one of the Thunder’s starting receivers.
But on the slopes that day, Delmage twisted his knee, tearing a ligament, a setback that would likely end his high school football career.
Mertens, who was snowboarding next to him, didn’t believe it at first.
“I was like, ‘nah, dude, you’re fine,’ ” Mertens said. “I thought it was just a bad tweak.”
Little did he know, at the time, that he would be called on to fill in what Mountain View coach Adam Mathieson calls his “marquee spot” in the Thunder’s offense, which only works to its full potential with a “home run guy” at halfback.
For the offense to work, Mertens had to be great.
“If your halfback in our system is a home run, breakaway guy, that usually flows the offense one way which opens up the counters, the pass game and everything else,” Mathieson said. “If he isn’t the ‘home run’ guy, the defense doesn’t have to account for him.”
It’s a choice that Mathieson thought, at the time, was the correct one. In the course of eight weeks, the senior has only proved his point, flourishing into the third-leading rusher in the region with 1,087 yards and 13 touchdowns while gaining an average of 11.8 yards per carry (plus 219 yards and two touchdowns receiving), which is among the most in the state across all classifications.
For a player who played golf for Mountain View freshman year and picked up football as a sophomore with only two years of youth experience, Mertens’ rise as the fourth-ranked Thunder’s top playmaker has been both rapid and drawn high praise from his coach.
Mathieson went as far as calling Mertens his best halfback in 11 years at the helm of Mountain View’s football team.
“This is a big statement,” Mathieson said. “You’re talking Preston Jones, P.J. Jones, Austin Mace, we’ve had some guys.
“Reality is he’s a home run threat with the ball in his hands, give it to him running or receiving.”
And he’s come a long way since the first time Mathieson, also Mountain View’s athletic director, saw Mertens. He was a freshman playing basketball, and Mathieson immediately noticed his athleticism.
Mertens played basketball year-round for much of his childhood. Mathieson thought he might make a nice quarterback. When he came out for football as a sophomore, Mertens was placed on junior varsity. But the first game, the Thunder’s starting “Z” receiver split open his chin, and Mertens was called in.
“I busted one good run then started for the rest of the season,” he said.
In many ways, the transition from “Z” — a position that requires a mix of running and receiving ability — was natural. He’d be doing some of the same things. Plus, the way the “Z” lines up in the Thunder’s offense (turned to the side instead of facing forward) felt unnatural to Mertens.
Mastering reads as a halfback took some time, too.
He learned to trust his linemen and key blockers, namely Charles Remlinger, Justin Lufkin-Quant, Preston Collins, Kobe Anderson, Zach Curry and Rodolfo Montiel.
What good back doesn’t shout out his linemen?
Mertens and quarterback Garrett Moen have a name for when they following the team’s sturdy blockers, often times pulling on their jerseys: the slingshot, an ode to the NASCAR maneuver nicknamed in the comedic movie Talladega Nights.
Mertens began to hit his stride at the start of league play. Sure, he ran hard and played physical against Union in the season opener. But where his natural ability carried him early in the season, he adapted to the position — the reads, where to trust blockers, understanding the cut-back lanes — midseason.
For Moen, having a capable half back lined up next to him is crucial. It also provides Moen peace of mind knowing he has Mertens as an outlet.
“If I get under pressure I flip it to him and he’ll make a play,” Moen said. “If I need him in pass blocking I know he’ll make a good block for me, keep me safe. … Third and short I don’t have to make a clutch throw, I can just hand it off to Jack. If I don’t read the pre-snap screen I just hand it to Jack.
“He makes a bad read look not so bad.”
The key to his success? Not overthinking things.
“Jack probably leaves practice, goes home and jumps off his roof onto a trampoline or something that I probably wouldn’t want to know about,” Mathieson joked. “He’s not overanalyzing. I think sometimes you can get paralysis by analysis.”
Coming off a throttling of previously undefeated Kelso in week 8 and a win over Fort Vancouver to close out league play Thursday night, the Thunder (8-1, 5-0 3A Greater St. Helens League) appear poised to make a deep postseason run.
Mertens is playing with many of his closest friends, which he says is a big reason why he tries to simply enjoy the moment and treat football as an opportunity to have fun and work hard.