Play for East squad in 20th Robeson All-Star Classic
By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
EAST ORANGE –
Before he heads off to Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., Nutley’s Chris Merkle is fortunate enough to get the chance to represent his town and school a few more times as a football player.
When the Nutley regular season ended last November, Merkle, a standout two-way lineman for the Maroon Raiders, was certain that was it.
“I thought my high school career was over,” Merkle said. “I thought I had a pretty good senior season, but that was it. I wasn’t expecting to get picked for anything else, so I was getting ready to go play in college.”
However, Merkle, who will be an offensive tackle in college, was wrong. He was selected to play in two high school All-Star games.
First was the Robeson All- Star High School Football Classic, which was played last Tuesday night, fittingly at Robeson Stadium in East Orange.
The game is named for the legendary Paul Robeson, the New Jersey native who was once named as the greatest defensive football player to ever play high school football in New Jersey.
Merkle was one of 10 local graduating high school seniors selected to play in the game for the East All-Stars.
“It was a great feeling to be out there,” Merkle said. “I hadn’t played in a while, so it was great to get back into the swing of things.”
This weekend, Merkle will head to Kean University to participate in the New Jersey Football Coaches Association’s North-South All-Star Classic. He will get four days of preparation at Kean before the game Monday night at 7 p.m.
Merkle is one of only two New Jersey players selected to play in both games, joining Kamau Dumas of Morristown, who is headed to Monmouth University to play.
“I’m very excited to get the opportunity to play in both games,” Merkle said. “I’m so happy and thankful to get the chance to play. It is kind of tough doing this for two weeks. All the practices take a little toll on the body. But I had a great experience playing in the Robeson game. I got to meet new players as teammates.”
Merkle said that he has been working on keeping in shape, hoping to play right away when he gets to Union College.
“I’ve been getting ready since the end of the football season,” Merkle said. “I played basketball this year and that really helped my foot work. I always loved playing basketball and I’m glad IO was on the team this year.”
Merkle said that participating in both All-Star games will be helpful.
“The priority was getting used to playing at college speed,” Merkle said. “Hopefully I’ll have a nice transition into college and play early.”
There was only one downside for the locals. The East squad lost the game, 13-12, on a late touchdown.
Belleville’s Aaquil Ingram, who was a last minute addition to the East squad, worked his way into becoming one of the most versatile members of the team.
In fact, Bloomfield head coach Mike Carter, one of the assistants for the East team, praised Ingram for his versatility as a receiver and as a blocker.
“I’m glad they gave me the chance,” said Ingram, who is headed to American International College in Springfield, Mass. to play football in the fall. “It’s better to play in the game than not at all. I honestly didn’t think I could be on the field, but my parents said that if I play up to my potential, I can play with anyone.”
Ingram was proud to be the lone Belleville player on the East squad.
“It was an honor to represent Belleville,” Ingram said. “It’s a small town and we don’t get much recognition. It was great to play for Belleville one last time. I hope we proved that Belleville football is on the rise.”
Ingram will also get to play high school football one more time. On June 29, Ingram and Belleville teammate Shaq Richards will play in the National Underclassman Combine Senior All-Star Game at Palisades Park High School, playing for a New Jersey All-Star team that will face New York.
Joe Rivera was one of seven Bloomfield players selected to participate. It was a great 2012 season for the Bengals, capped with a solid appearance in the NJSIAA Group IV playoffs, winning two games.
“It was a good opportunity for me,” said Rivera, who will play football at Monroe College in New Rochelle, N.Y. in the fall. “Not many get the opportunity to play. It was a great experience. There was nothing bad about it. It was a wonderful feeling to get to play with my Bloomfield teammates one last time. There’s no better way to go out than with the guys I grew up with, playing on the big stage.”
Rivera liked the camaraderie that the East players had, including with the Nutley and Belleville players, guys who were once fierce rivals.
“It was great to play with them,” Rivera said. “The other guys were really cool and it was great to be on the same team. We put aside our differences and became friends. We just couldn’t come away with a win.”
Other Bloomfield players on the East squad included Jaquan Boyd, Isaiah Dockett, Anthony Mastrimi, David and Brian Hicks and Adam Wooten. Zac Dearwater, an assistant at Bloomfield, was one of the assistant coaches for the East, so Bloomfield was more than well represented. It was the largest contingency from one school at the Robeson Classic in recent memory.
Sal Gabriele of Nutley was also selected to play in the game.
“I was really surprised that I was picked, but it was a great feeling to be out there,” Gabriele said. “I was truly honored and lucky to be in the game. I actually dreamed of playing one last game and it happened, playing in front of family and friends.”
Gabriele’s football career ended with the game. He’s headed to Richard Stockton College to play lacrosse.
“It was a happy feeling,” Gabriele said. “I just wish we’d won.”
Gabriele was also happy he shared the game with Merkle.
“We have been great friends for a long time,” Gabriele said. “It was great to play one last game with him.”
Merkle now moves on to his next All-Star challenge. The North squad will go through three practice sessions on Friday and Saturday at Kean.
“I’ve never done three-a-day,” Merkle said. “There’s a first for everything. It’s just all going to keep me in great shape.”