When the IFCA North/South All-Star game kicks off Friday at North Central High School, former Andrean quarterback Zack Merrill will hope for no bad snaps.
Aside from playing quarterback for the North squad, Merrill will hold on field-goal and extra-point attempts for his longtime friend, former Andrean and Chesterton kicker Chris VanEekeren. When VanEekeren left Andrean for Chesterton after his sophomore year, the two never expected to play together again.
They'll be reunited for one more game, but Merrill wants no shenanigans.
“If there's a bad snap, there's a 'fire' call we have to run where Chris is supposed to be my lead blocker,” Merrill said. “I don't know how well he's gonna lead block for me. I might have to throw him in the way of some guys.”
While the two may approach coaches beforehand to see if they can run a planned trick play, they're just happy to share the same huddle. Although they aren't roommates this week, Merrill said VanEekeren has invaded his room from sunrise to sunset. VanEekeren met Merrill in eighth grade and said he was disappointed not to play with his buddy anymore when he transferred.
Both players earned preferred walk-on spots for next season – VanEekeren at Purdue and Merrill at Indiana. VanEekeren in particular could see action as a freshman.
Only the starting kicker and punter earn scholarships at most FBS schools – Purdue included – and VanEekeren expects to play behind redshirt junior J.D. Dellinger.
Chesterton special teams coordinator Nick Bamber said VanEekeren could start once Dellinger leaves if he continues to improve his accuracy. After the Trojans suffered multiple key injuries in their regular-season loss to Valparaiso, VanEekeren stepped in at quarterback and nearly led an upset of Portage despite only having one week to acclimate.
Bamber lives close to Chesterton High School and on his drive home would see VanEekeren getting in midwinter work on the snow-covered field. VanEekeren would take six balls with him, kick them and chase them down to do it all over again. At times, he kept at it for hours.
Bamber is confident VanEekeren's work ethic and mental toughness mean he'll be ready when his time comes.
“We're gonna miss him a lot,” Bamber said. “We've had kickers who have gone to Big Ten and MAC schools before Chris, but he's kind of different because he doesn't overthink stuff.”
So far, most of VanEekeren's college workouts have revolved around weight training with Purdue's strength staff. The newcomers lift on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, preceded by intense warmup sessions geared toward injury prevention that VanEekeren said are the most difficult parts of the day.
Fall camp starts August 1, and VanEekeren said his goal is to win the kickoff job.
“He has worked hard, and I believe his work ethic is gonna lead to the mental success down the road,” said Chris Nendick, a coach with Chris Sailer Kicking who trains VanEekeren. “So with his work ethic combined with the mental side of things, I think it kind of builds a little confidence and builds a little trust in what he's doing long term.”
Years from now, it's possible that VanEekeren and Merrill will play significant roles in Indiana's biggest football rivalry. The two friends regularly trade good-natured barbs regarding the rivalry, and Merrill said he may yell at VanEekeren from IU's sideline on November 30 to try to distract him.
Neither projects to see much action during this fall's installment in West Lafayette. But the conversation after the final whistle while one team holds up the Old Oaken Bucket and the other hangs its heads will be no less lively.
“There's the friendly banter every now and then, but it's just fun,” VanEekeren said. “It's so cool that we get to play one more time before playing against each other.”