Nutley High School’s Craig Merkle had a junior year to remember, collecting 1,229 yards rushing and scoring 19 touchdowns for the Maroon Raiders, leading Nutley to the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV state playoffs.
So one would figure that Merkle would be able to duplicate that feat as a senior, right?
Just three games into the 2015 season – all Maroon Raider victories, by the way – Merkle has already accumulated 717 yards and scored 12 touchdowns, putting him close to the state leader in both categories.
And last Friday night, in the Maroon Raiders’ 48- 38 win over West Orange, Merkle achieved a milestone of excellence by becoming the school’s all-time leading rusher, surpassing the mark set a few years ago by Matt Delmauro, currently the starting running back at Bucknell University.
Merkle had no idea that he surpassed Delmauro’s record of 2,556 yards.
“It feels good to have that record,” said Merkle, whose two older brothers, Chris and Kevin, were both once Nutley football standouts. “Now that I have it, I just have to keep going. There’s a lot more to come.”
Merkle had one of the best all-around football performances in Nutley history in the Maroon Raiders’ win Friday night.
He carried the ball 26 times for 240 yards and scored two touchdowns on the ground. He also caught two passes for 56 yards, taking both receptions in for scores. It meant that he scored on a 72-yard run, a 38-yard pass from quarterback Anthony Condito, an 18-yard pass from Condito and a 14-yard run.
It also marked the first full game this season that Merkle played on defense. From his linebacker slot, Merkle collected 12 tackles, recorded a sack and forced two fumbles.
For his efforts, Merkle has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week.
Almost incredibly, Merkle was also named Observer Athlete of the Week exactly one year ago to the date, collecting 192 yards and two touchdowns and also had an interception return for a score in the Maroon Raiders’ 49-27 win over West Orange.
To quote a famous baseball philosopher who died last week named Yogi, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”
Nutley head coach Tom Basile said that he just expects big things from Merkle.
“It’s kind of what we excpected from him,” Basile said. “He sets the tone for the entire team. He does it all. He does everything we ask him to do. He had a great year last year, but we expected him to do even more this year. I think he’s doing more catching the ball out of the backfield, but other than that, it’s kind of been business as usual.”
Merkle was a little battered and bruised in the early part of the season, so Basile kept him out of the game defensively to concentrate on his offensive side as well as to heal a little for bigger games later in the season.
“He was hurting like heck, so we kept him off the offensive side,” Basile said. “When the games get tougher, then we figured to bring him back in at linebacker.”
The 6-foot-1, 215-pound Merkle said that he missed playing defense, but he understood the need to get fully healthy.
“It did feel good to be playing on only one side for a change,” Merkle said. “But it’s great to play both sides. I’d much rather stay on the field. I’m 100%. I’m good to go.”
Merkle said that he worked on some different aspects to his game in order to possibly impress college recruiters. “It’s definitely a big thing for me right now,” Merkle said. “I want to get into college. That’s a goal. I also want a state championship and I think we have a good chance this year. So if there were things I thought I had problems with, I worked on them, both offensively and defensively. I worked on little things to get better.”
Basile said that Merkle has also taken on more of a responsibility of being a team leader.
“I think in the past he did his thing and went home,” Basile said. “Now, he’s a senior captain, he’s taken a lot of the younger kids under his wing and has become a really good role model to the young ones. He’s very active with the rest of the team.”
Basile has no idea why Merkle doesn’t have more college offers to date. Right now, Pace University is the only real school to show consistent interest.
“He should have had more offers by now,” Basile said. “I feel like he’s been overlooked. I’ve reached out to a few people and I don’t understand it. He’s a player. In my 12 years here, he’s the best player we’ve had. He plays with fire and plays fast. He’s a quiet leader. I think he’s just fine the way he is. Craig makes the people around him better.”
Merkle is also approaching Delmauro’s school record for career touchdowns.
“He’s one away from that record,” Basile said. “He’s hungry. He wants the football and we’re going to give it to him as much as we can. He does have the aura of being a star player, but he doesn’t have the mentality. But he’s a star. No question about that.”
Basile also likes Merkle’s style.
“He’s a very physical runner who can run right over you,” Basile said. “But he can also run away from you as well. He does have good speed. It doesn’t look like he does, but he’s moving.”
Merkle said that he’s not overly surprised that he doesn’t have a ton of college offers.
“I think it just puts a little chip on my shoulder,” Merkle said. “It just makes me play harder. If I play hard every game, hopefully someone will notice me and give me a chance. I’m not really sure what coaches are looking for. They’re not giving me answers straight up. Maybe I’m a little too small for linebacker. Maybe I’m not quick enough for offense. Who knows? I’m just going to work hard and whatever happens, happens.”
Merkle said that he has received some satisfaction from doing something that neither of his brothers did.
“We always joke with each other at home like who’s better and who did what,” Merkle said. “I guess I can now brag a little bit. I like the way I’m playing right now. It’s a long season. I just want to keep it going, but I like the way we’ve come out this year.”
The 3-0 Maroon Raiders will now play perennial state and Essex County power Montclair this weekend. Now, the fun really begins.
“The games do get tougher now, so I really have to step it up,” Merkle said. “I just hope I can come out and play the same way every week.”
If that happens, then Merkle will have a season for the ages, not to mention the record books.
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Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer
Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.
It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.
In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.
In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.
He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.
During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.
Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.
Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”