By John Kovach
ALLIANCE — Joey Merlo of the Mount Union College soccer team said that he was called “a dangerous player” by some opposing coaches during games this season.
But the freshman forward from Cardinal Mooney High and Niles wasn’t complaining about the label in the context that it was made, because it meant that he was attacking with the ball and setting up his teammates to score goals.
In other words, Merlo was primarily a playmaker, and good enough to become the only freshman to make the 2009 All-Ohio Athletic Conference team first team.
“I am considered a playmaker. The coach looked at me a lot this year as a playmaker. I am able to bring the ball down the field,” said Merlo, who also was the Purple Raiders’ third-leading scorer with 12 points on five goals and two assists.
“I was able to create scoring situations and shots on goal, and also I was bringing in a lot of my teammates into the mix and giving them a lot of scoring opportunities.”
He believes that he was able to set up the offensive attack because, “I am very quick with the ball. I play very quick and I have foot skills and knowledge of the game.”
Joining Merlo on the All-OAC team first team was sophomore midfielder T.J. Welch, who led Mount Union in scoring with eight goals and two points for 18 points.
In addition, Merlo’s two-year teammate at Mooney, freshman goalie Jon Critell of Youngstown, made All-OAC honorable mention.
“[Critell] is very smart for how young he is. He made a lot of big-game saves. He was pretty incredible,” praised Merlo of Critell, who had a 1.26 goals-against average, 70 saves and five shutouts.
Merlo and Critell are among five Mooney and 14 Youngstown-area players on the Mount Union team. The 14 represent about 33 percent of the entire roster of 42 players (27 varsity and 15 reserve).
The other Mooney players are freshman midfielder Leo Hicks of Leetonia and sophomore midfielder Tommie McBride from New Waterford, both on the varsity squad; and sophomore defender Bill Payne (Cardinal Mooney and Youngstown) on the reserve team.
Merlo noted that Hicks, McBride and Payne also were teammates with him and Critell at Mooney under coach Larry Lencyk.
The other area varsity players are senior defender Brendan Rodgers (Marlington and Homeworth), Junior midfielder Matt McCain (West Branch and Homeworth), sophomore defender Anthony Grenga (Boardman and Canfield), sophomore defender Brett Balong (Boardman) and freshman midfielder Tyler Day (Champion) of Warren.
Merlo believes the Purple Raiders (8-10-1, 1-7 OAC), guided by third-year coach John Witkowski and first-year assistant Arnie Sharp, could have had a much better record if it weren’t for an injury and inexperience.
“We had two seniors starting, but one got hurt and didn’t play, and most of the starters are freshmen and sophomores,” said Merlo, a pharmacy major and the son of Louise and Joe Merlo, who made All-District at Mooney.
“We were in a lot of close games, but inexperience prevented us from finishing with a win.”
For example, “Like we were up 2-0 [in a game] and the team came back to beat us, 3-2, stuff like that.”
Critell is a sports business major and the son of Mary Ann and James Critell. He was the 2008 Mahoning Valley Player of the Year at Mooney.
Hicks, a political science major and the son of Leo and Cathie Hicks, had one goal and one assist. While at Mooney, he was a four-year letterwinner and Academic All-Ohio first team .
McBride, a biology major and the son of John and Lori McBride, also had one goal and one assist. But in 2008, he had five goals with two assists. He was a four-year letterwinner at Mooney.
Rodgers, a health education major and the son of Randall and Molly Rodgers, had one goal and one assist.
McCain, an English major and the son of Barb and David NcCain, scored one goal.
Grenga, the son of Tony and Mary Sue Grenga, started all 19 games as a defensive specialist.
Besides Payne, also on the reserve team are sophomore defender Donnie Lewis (Canfield), sophomore midfielder Levi Payne (East Liverpool) and freshman midfielder D.J. Herman and freshman defender Matt Wallace (both from Boardman).