Luke Mertens wasn’t sure he’d ever coach football again.
His departure from Lake Zurich after two seasons in April 2019 caught many by surprise, but he was happy. Mertens spent more time with his wife, became closer with his children and he recalibrated himself after years of being a head coach at Lakes and Lake Zurich.
But then the unexpected happened.
A former player of Mertens’ at St. Patrick, Dan Santucci, became the school’s president and reached out to Mertens to see if he wanted to become the school’s next football coach. Santucci started to bring changes to his alma mater and wanted Mertens to join him in evolving the school’s football program.
Mertens saw it as a sign: If he was going to get back into coaching, it’d be at his alma mater.
“It was a perfect fit for me,” Mertens said. “I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to re-enter the profession and this opportunity came along. To be a part of a place that’s meant so much to me, has had such an impact on my upbringing and to now have the opportunity to impact others the way I was impacted, it just means a lot.”
Mertens had been an assistant coach at St. Patrick and St. Rita before he became the head coach at Lakes in 2005. There he led the program to nine playoff appearances in 12 years, including eight straight years before he left for Lake Zurich in 2017.
He took over at Lake Zurich after a hazing incident led to head coach David Proffitt’s resignation. Mertens stressed the importance of culture and helped lead the Bears to the Class 7A state title game, where they fell to Batavia. Lake Zurich finished the next season 7-4 before Mertens realized he needed to leave coaching and be more present for his family.
“It’s really easy to get off your path and it’s really easy to lose your why,” Mertens said. “I was losing mine. I felt like I needed to take that break to rediscover that.”
During the past two years, he not only grew closer with his kids, but also realized more about himself as a coach. Mertens became more lucid and aware than he was in the past. He objectively evaluated his strengths and weaknesses, learning what areas he needed to improve if he ever wanted to be a coach again.
When Santucci approached Mertens about the St. Patrick coaching position, he had his family’s full support. Although his kids loved having him home, they missed going to games and having that connection to football.
But there was a deeper connection that helped him realize this was the right choice. Back when he was a head coach at Lakes, his friend and assistant coach Cristo Garza always said they should go to St. Patrick and raise Mertens’ alma mater to great heights. Mertens knew Garza was being tongue and cheek, but he felt there was some seriousness in Garza’s proposition.
Garza died this past summer of natural causes, and when Santucci approached Mertens a few weeks after Garza’s burial about the St. Patrick job, Mertens knew it was fate.
“I do believe God works in mysterious ways and my friend Cristo was behind us as well,” Mertens said.
Mertens becomes the 11th coach in the 161-year history of the school, the first alumnus to lead the program. As a head coach, Mertens has won six conference championships, earned 11 state playoff appearances and helped lead players to different honors and recognitions.
St. Patrick athletic director Matt Reardon has already seen the excitement around Mertens’ hiring from the community in less than 24 hours after it was announced, and is excited to see where the new coach can take the program.
“He’s already gotten a lot of buzz with the community at large, so we’re really looking forward to that,” Reardon said. “I know he does have a great history, his coaching resume is something we’re excited to add to with his years here.”
Mertens takes over a program that made history this past season when the Shamrocks qualified for the state quarterfinals for the first time. He thanked the seniors when he met with the players on Wednesday because it was a special moment for him as an alumnus to watch the program reach a new height.
Now Mertens is ready to build off of that success. He wants his players to excel both on and off the field, being role models in the classroom. His number one goal is to make sure that every player who plays in the program is a better person because of playing football at St. Patrick. Mertens knows if he does that, he’s reached his goal because making a better person makes a better football player.
It’s all connected and part of a plan to bring his alma mater to a new level when it comes to football, and an opportunity Mertens wasn’t sure he’d get.
“Like most things in life that turn out to be great, you’re not looking for them at that moment, you just stumble upon them,” Mertens said. “This was one of those things. Fate just kind of made it all happen.”