WOODSTOCK – Woodstock North senior Collin Mergl looked at his right pinkie, more or less pointing at a 45-degree angle, and said, “That’s probably not good.”
Mergl jammed the finger during a June basketball game with the Thunder, which knocked him out for basketball and limited what he could do for football.
The break did not require surgery, just time to heal. Fortunately for Mergl and North, he had sufficient time over the summer and was cleared for activities Aug. 4.
Mergl puts North in a rare position of losing its starting quarterback (Matt Zinnen) to graduation, while still returning a starter there (Mergl was varsity quarterback as a sophomore). Mergl’s talent and experience will be vital as North contends for the Kishwaukee River Conference championship and a fourth playoff berth in the program’s nine years.
“[The pinkie] is not what is used to be, but it’s doable,” the 6-foot-5, 200-pound Mergl said. “I have to keep it taped, and it kind of changes the grip on the ball. Other than that, I took mental reps (throughout the summer) and didn’t miss too much. I paid attention and focused on the details.”
Thunder coach Jeff Schroeder said his team is in good hands with Mergl running the option offense. Mergl missed the last three games of 2015 when he suffered a heel injury and Zinnen stepped in.
“We wanted Matt and Collin both on the field (last year), so Collin was our backup (quarterback) and played wingback,” Schroeder said. “He’s assuming a position he played for (almost) a full varsity season. He looks really good.”
Linemen Dylan Martinez, Trevor Stinger and Brian Kline, along with receiver Joe Grover and running back Nicco Mazzanti return on offense. The Thunder will have six starters back on defense, as well.
“I think we can compete at a very high level in the conference if we stay healthy,” Schroeder said. “We don’t have a ton of guys, but if we stay healthy, we can compete. We feel really good about who we have returning and what our summer’s looking like.”
The Thunder won last year’s regular-season finale, 23-22, over Rock Falls in overtime. North needed to reach 6-3 to make the playoffs, then wound up with a first-round home game.
“We go in with high energy because we went to the playoffs and we have some returning guys,” Martinez said. “We need to stay focused about working on technique and the little things. We need to follow through. Even with a year off, [Mergl] knows our offense. He was around last year. He’s going to be the perfect option for our team at quarterback.”
Mergl rushed for 747 yards and eight touchdowns last season as a wingback. He is eager to return to quarterback and help the Thunder back to the postseason.
“We’re capable of returning to the playoffs. That’s in all of our mindsets,” Mergl said. “It was a huge confidence boost for our program to return there, get the atmosphere. You loved that feeling and that environment and want to get back there every single year.”