Redbirds’ Merkel caps football career with Player of the Year honor

Allentown High School quarterback Dan Merkel drops back to pass during a game against Hightstown on Sept. 20, 2019, at Allentown High School. Merkel threw for 6,011 yards during his four years at Allentown.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Allentown High School quarterback Dan Merkel drops back to pass during a game against Hightstown on Sept. 20, 2019, at Allentown High School. Merkel threw for 6,011 yards during his four years at Allentown.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF

Dan Merkel did it all during his four years as the quarterback of the Allentown High School football team.

He set records in Mercer County, where the Redbirds from Monmouth County compete in the Colonial Valley Conference, with his arm and he rushed for more than 3,000 yards.

Add in Merkel’s leadership qualities, work ethic and competitive drive and you have the entire arsenal he had at his disposal to leave a legacy in the halls of Allentown High School.

“Dan is a tremendous player and he set the bar really high for quarterbacks in our program and in the area,” Allentown Coach Andrew Lachenmayer said. “Dan was a lot of fun to coach. It’s always fun to coach a competitive guy like him. His growth as a quarterback over four years was great to see.”

Merkel put the finishing touches on a historic career with a senior campaign in 2020 that saw him account for 21 touchdowns for the Redbirds (2-6). He passed for 1,364 yards and rushed for 995 yards.

He ended his career as the all-time passing leader in the CVC with 6,011 yards and rushed for 3,208 yards.

Following the season, Merkel was named the winner of the Frank “Mammy” Piscopo Memorial Award as the Player of the Year (non-prep) in Mercer County by the 12th Man TD Club.

Winning the award was something Merkel was not expecting. He said he felt very honored to have been selected for the honor.

Playing the 2020 season meant a lot to Merkel, who resides in Millstone Township. He said he enjoyed having the opportunity to play one more season with his teammates, given the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“We were lucky to play all of our games this year,” he said. “It was great to play alongside all of the seniors one last time.”

Merkel is the third Allentown player to win the Frank “Mammy” Piscopo Memorial Award. Michael Curry (2014) and Rick Mottram (2016) were the high school’s previous recipients.

Throughout his career as quarterback of the Redbirds, Merkel recorded many great moments he said he will always remember.

Passing for a career high 396 yards and throwing five touchdown passes as a freshman against Hopewell Valley Central High School is one such highlight, as is the performance Merkel had against the Bulldogs on Nov. 20.

Allentown’s season finale capped Merkel’s high school career on the gridiron the way a player would want his career to end, Lachenmayer said. With three seconds to play, the score was tied, 48-48, and Allentown was at Hopewell Valley’s 29 yard line.

Lachenmayer told Merkel he was going to put the ball in his hands with a run play.

“The call was trips left (three receivers on the left side of the line). We were going to run all of the receivers to the other side of the field and I would run up the left sideline. Coach Lachenmayer told me to take it myself and to run as fast as I could to get in the end zone,” Merkel said.

Merkel took the shotgun snap and rolled in his left. After he beat a Hopewell Valley defender to the edge, Merkel knew he was on his way.

Running for his life, as he stated, Merkel sped along the sideline and ducked past the last defender in his path to score the game-winning touchdown. Allentown won 54-48 as the senior ended his career on a high note.

“It was a surreal moment. It felt amazing when I scored. It was an amazing way to end all the seniors’ careers. We did it together,” Merkel said.

Merkel led the Redbirds to state playoff appearances in 2017, 2018 and 2019.

For now, Merkel’s career on the gridiron is over. He said he plans to focus on baseball when he attends Wagner College, Staten Island, N.Y., next year, although a try at football may not be out of the question.

From his parents, Dan Merkel and Lilly Mark, to the teammates and coaches he has had throughout 10 years of playing football, Merkel said he will always remember his time on the gridiron.

Finishing his scholastic career as the all-time passing leader in the CVC showed Merkel what he could accomplish when he put his mind to something.

“I know if I focus on what I want to do, I can be great at it. I always considered myself a good athlete. Being a four-year starter was a great experience and it taught me a lot about being a competitor and will help me throughout my life. It was a good career,” he said.