In a season of stoppages, shut downs, start-ups, quarantines, limited crowds and no crowds, why should post-season awards be any less complicated?
The voting for this year’s Mercer County 12th Man TD Club players of the year was the tightest it has ever been. So tight, in fact, that a second vote was necessary.
Even that couldn’t produce a clear-cut winner in one category but one thing is certain, this year’s winners are certainly worthy of their honors.
Allentown senior quarterback Dan Merkel was named the Frank “Mammy” Piscopo Memorial Player of the Year (non-preps), presented by the Santuzza Oilers.
The voting for the Charles J. “Fuzzy” Falzone Memorial Lineman of the Year, presented by the Benevolent Order of Falzone, has produced two recipients for the first time since 2013. The winners are Robbinsville High senior Aaden Butler and Lawrence senior Tolu Olajide.
The voting took some time due to extenuating circumstances; most notably being how some candidates were limited by so few games that it hurt their chances despite outstanding performances each game. Several coaches did not nominate players due to their short seasons.
But Merkel played in all eight and became the third Redbird to win the award in the last seven years along with Rick Mottram (2016) and Michael Curry (2014).
“It means a lot to win such a prestigious award in my final year,” Merkel said. “And it’s a great way to cap off my football career.”
The Wagner College-bound baseball player capped off his actual playing career in the most perfect way possible, scoring on a 33-yard run on the last play of his high school career to give Allentown a 54-48 win at Hopewell Valley as time ran out.
It was only fitting, as Merkel finished the 2020 season with 1,364 passing yards, 995 rushing yards and 21 total touchdowns. A four-year starter at quarterback, and also a safety on defense, Merkel leaves the sport as Mercer County football’s all-time passing yardage leader with 6,011 yards. He also rushed for 3,208 yards and put up numbers in some games that were nothing short of amazing.
“I’m very proud of Dan,” coach Drew Lachenmayer said. “He has worked very hard at his craft over the past four years. If you look at the list of winners in the past, both at Allentown and from the area, it cements Dan’s place among some of the best players the area has ever seen.”
Asked what he will remember most about Merkel, the coach said “his competitiveness and maybe because it is fresh in my mind right now, but the final play at Hopewell.”
That competitiveness was put to the test this year as Allentown struggled through a 2-6 season after having winning campaigns in Merkel’s first three years. And yet, he never got down or lost that hunger to compete.
“This certainly wasn’t the year we expected to have,” Lachenmayer said. “Our message to Dan and the kids was just enjoy the opportunities as they presented themselves. A lot of teams weren’t able to have a full season this year due to Covid. Dan just wants to play. Whatever the time, place or circumstance Dan just shows up looking to compete and be the best player that he can be.”
That was also the attitude of Olajide, whose season at Lawrence was halted after just four games that produced a 1-3 record. At 6-foot-5, 288 pounds he was a two-year starter at left tackle and a team captain this past year.
“It’s such an honor,” Olajide said. “This means a lot to me especially during this pandemic and how hard this season was for everyone. It feels great to be noticed for my hard work while only playing four games. And I have to thank my coaches and teammates because this would not be possible without them.”
According to Rob Radice, Olajide’s strengths are his physicality; great feet and hips; and the ability to finish blocks through the whistle.
“He really enjoyed getting after the opponents,” the veteran coach said. “His work ethic and athletic ability were outstanding. He was able to really work on and change his body through lifting and conditioning over the last two years. We ran to his side all year.”
“He played with an intense desire to dominate his opponent. He was very coachable and would do anything for the team.”
He will be doing it for a college team next year, as Olajide has received offers from Assumption and Stone Hill, with more to come.
“I still have a lot of other options unfolding currently so only time will tell,” he said. “‘Weighing things’ would be the right word to explain my current situation.”
Butler’s situation is already decided, as he will major in engineering and play linebacker for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
But it was his season at left guard that allowed him to become the first Raven to ever garner 12th Man TD Club Player of the Year recognition.
“Any outside recognition that any of our players get is always great for the program,” coach Andrew Patterson said. “It is an individual honor, but our guys know any time a singular player scores a touchdown, gets an interception, and wins an award it’s a team event.”
“Receiving this award is such an honor,” said Butler, who helped the Ravens to a 6-1 record. “I am proud to be the first of many future Ravens to receive this prestigious award. I have been playing football since I was six years old. It’s great to be recognized for all of my hard work during and off season.”
Butler played fullback his first three seasons but when Nick Suscovich moved to center, Robbinsville needed a fast, physical guard and Butler stepped in. The guy he replaced loomed large in Butler’s development.
“I want to thank my teammates, especially my interior linemen,” he said. “I wouldn’t be here without the help of Nick Suscovich who knew the job of any given linemen on any given play. Being new in this position, it was these players that helped me. They are my brothers.”
Butler also passed along thanks to Patterson and the Ravens staff, along with his PAL coaches, which included his father, Eric. Their teachings helped mold his raw ability.
“His skillset is vast, being topped off by his team-first mentality that got him settled in at left guard in the first place,” Patterson said. “He has been playing football for a decade, knows the game inside and out. He and I have a running joke that he is like playing AP (advanced placement) football. He’s a smart player, not just a physical one. He knows the nuances of the other team.
“He’s also very strong, aggressive and fast between the whistles. I’ve seen him send opponents airborne on both sides of the ball.”
As a linebacker, Butler led the Ravens with 54 tackles, prompting Patterson to note, “He’s a player you have to game plan around. You have to make sure your O-line and blocking backs know where he is at all times.”
FINAL WEEKLY HONORS
The final Mercer County 12th Man TD Club weekly honors were limited to two teams since the Hamilton-Steinert Thanksgiving game was the only one played as the season concluded.
And the award winners were apparently limited to Hamilton senior players named Williams and Steinert sophomores.
For West, senior receiver Zykeem Williams was the Offensive Back of the Week after catching a 34-yard touchdown pass from Mike Nielsen to give Hamilton the lead in what would be a 22-6 victory. He also caught a 2-point conversion pass.
On the other side of the ball, senior Tyler Williams was Defensive Lineman of the Week after making six tackles, including three for a loss. Williams is ticketed for South Carolina State next year.
For the Spartans, youth served them well. Sophomore Colin James earned Offensive Lineman of the Week and also made seven tackles.
“Colin blocked well and stepped up in the game,” coach Dan Caruso said. “He also played very well for us all year on both sides of the ball.”
Zack Gibson, another 10th-grader, earned Defensive Back of the Week honors after making six tackles from his linebacker spot, including a touchdown-saving takedown on star running back Kevin Boswell. Gibson also scored Steinert’s lone points after a blocked punt.
“He was all over the field for us on defense and special teams,” Caruso said.