After three years away, Luke Mertens is ready to get back in the game.
The former Lakes and Lake Zurich football coach is coming full circle and taking over at St. Patrick, the school he graduated from in 1994.
Mertens replaces Adam Guerra, who led the Shamrocks to a 19-25 record over five seasons, capped by the program’s first IHSA quarterfinal berth this year. Guerra remains at the school as dean of students.
“Surreal,” Mertens said of his first days on the job. “It’s been a whirlwind of emotions, all positive. It’s connected me with so many great people of the past. It’s a special place.”
Mertens started the program at Lakes when the school opened. He guided the Eagles to a 72-50 record, nine IHSA playoff berths and one quarterfinal appearance over 12 seasons from 2005-16.
He then took over at Lake Zurich in the wake of a hazing scandal that cost several athletic department staffers their jobs and led to a lawsuit against the district by two former players that was settled for $399,000.
Mertens put the program back on firm footing, leading the Bears to a 20-5 record over two seasons, including a Class 7A runner-up finish in 2017.
He stepped down to spend more time with his family, including watching his own kids’ games.
“I wanted to see what it’s like to be a dad,” he said. “Being a head coach at the high school level, it’s sometimes difficult to juggle [everything].”
What he found during his time away from the football field surprised him a bit.
“My kids were my biggest proponents to get back into coaching,” he said. “They really enjoyed being a part of what a football program is. That’s what they grew up with. That was a part of their life.”
Now he’s back at St. Patrick, where he spent time as an assistant after his playing days. He also coached at St. Rita before getting his first head coaching job.
Mertens appreciated the opportunities to start a program from scratch at Lakes and to help a successful one regain its bearings at Lake Zurich.
But, he said, “this is different. There is nothing like coming back to the school that helped shape you as a person and have an opportunity to give back.”
St. Patrick president Dan Santucci is a 2002 graduate of the school who played for the Shamrocks when Mertens was an assistant.
“Personally, I was fortunate to benefit from Coach Mertens’ leadership, passion and positive energy during my time as a player,” Santucci said in a statement. “I know he embodies the skills and mentality to win championships at St. Pat’s.”