A year ago, Joey Merlo proved to be an instant success as a freshman on the Mount Union soccer team.
One year later, Merlo is showing that his performance was no fluke.
Sophomore slump? In Merlo's case, more like sophomore sensation.
A Niles native and a 2009 graduate of Cardinal Mooney High, Merlo recently was named Ohio Athletic Conference Men's Soccer Player of the Week. Merlo scored three goals during the Purple Raiders' 3-0 week (Sept. 13-20), including game-winners against Bethany (W. Va.) and St. John Fisher (N.Y.). Shortly afterward, Merlo was named Most Valuable Player of the Wittenberg Invitational, which featured Mount Union wins over Earlham and St. John Fisher.
"It's been a neat way to start the season," Merlo said. "I had a lot of good things happen to me last year as a freshman. I wanted to really push myself this year to prove it wasn't a mistake. Instead of being satisfied, I think that what happened last year made me push even harder during the off-season."
As a freshman, Merlo was inserted into the starting lineup in the fifth game of the season, and remained a starter for the rest of the year. By season's end, he was the Raiders' second-leading scorer, and was named to the All-OAC First Team. He was the only freshman from any OAC school to receive the honor.
"It was cool. I was receiving emails even from some of our competitors who said they thought it was great that a freshman was recognized," Merlo said. "Heading into last season, I really felt like I could make an immediate impact. I was happy that the coach also saw that, and gave me a chance."
Through the first 11 games of the 2010 season, Mount Union owns a 6-4-1 record. Merlo has been the Raiders' offensive spark plug throughout the current campaign. In addition to his seven goals and one assist, Merlo has been a workhorse. Other than an injury which briefly took him out of the first game, he has played every minute of every game, including overtimes.
"I hate sitting down. I hate not being a part of the action," Merlo said. "I love soccer. If there's a game being played in front of me, I want in."
Soccer has been a part of Merlo's life since he first began playing the sport at the age of 4. Since then, he has been a part of numerous rec, traveling and club league teams. Throughout his teen-age years, he belonged to some of the most successful club teams in the region.
Merlo attended Mount Carmel School through eighth grade, then attended Niles McKinley High through his sophomore year. He then made what he called "one of the toughest decisions of my life" when he opted to finish out his high school career at Mooney.
"I was leaving some very close friends who I had known literally my whole life," Merlo said. "But I knew that I wanted to play soccer at the next level, and I knew that Mooney offered a great opportunity. I was exposed to a whole different level of soccer. I was playing with and against the very top players in the state."
Merlo said that the transition was made easy because he immediately was welcomed and felt as though he fit in to what he described as "the Mooney family." In fact, five of Merlo's current Mount Union teammates are graduates of Mooney.
A Biochemistry major, Merlo plans to attend graduate school when he completes his studies at Mount Union with the goal of becoming a pharmacist. However, he is not ready to rule out a future in soccer that goes beyond college.
"I've made it this far, so when my college career ends I want to give soccer a shot at the semi-pro or pro level," Merlo said. "I don't ever want to look back and wonder what if."
"When it comes to decisions I've made regarding soccer, I have no regrets. I want to keep it that way when I walk away from the game."
Merlo is the son of Joe and Louise Merlo of Niles.