Having won nine state championships, it is safe to say the Roncalli football program has a rich tradition. This tradition manifests itself in several different ways. Younger brothers follow in the footsteps of their older brothers, nephews of their uncles, and even sons of their fathers. Names like Lauck, Schott, and Annee have been scattered up and down the roster sheet for over forty years. There is tradition found in the long line of great running backs the school has produced. Names like Dick Nalley, Joe Gillum, Stan Lawrie, Mike Bohn, and Sean Schembra conjure up images of breakaway speed and punishing runners. Running out of the woods, the Blockhouse, and Senior Scripture all have their places as well. However, there may be one tradition many people overlook: the continuous excellence at the place kicker position.
Michael Tinder (’91-’93) was the first great kicker of the Scifres era. Handling both place kicking and punting responsibilities, he was named to the AP All-State team and eventually found himself at Ball State. Later in the nineties, Nick Long and Michael O’Keefe were bankable with game winning kicks in the playoffs and against rivals. Crossing over into the 2000’s, Jeff Westell and Kevin Trulock were both AP All-State (Trulock “walked on” at Indiana). Aaron Puntarelli earned a scholarship at UINDY. Drew Oehrle was both AP and IFCA All-State in 2010 and ‘11 before heading out to Colorado to kick for the Air Force Academy. Last season’s kicker, Patrick Sandler is currently kicking for the University of Dayton.
The current kicker, Merrick Strykowski, has had to patiently bide his time. Kicking behind Sandler was both a blessing and a curse. The downside was obvious. Sandler had established himself as the starting varsity placekicker as a sophomore (Strykowski’s freshman year). Like many other players in the program over the years, Merrick knew he had to prepare as if he would be needed at any moment, but develop the patience to wait until it was his time. He used his situation as a blessing to perfect his craft and study the incumbent.
“Patrick and I were always cool. We would share corrections if we noticed the other one was having a problem or making a mistake,” shared Strykowski. “I learned a lot from him, mostly how he prepared for his game-winners. It was just him in a zone – totally focused on that moment.”
Strykowski also put in some serious work. He began attending Brandon Kornblue’s kicking camps in seventh grade. Receiving specialized, one-on-one instruction was crucial to his development and helped lead him to the decision of focusing solely on kicking as a freshman. This specialization afforded him the opportunity to work with the varsity kickers and coaching staff on a daily basis a year earlier than most. In recent years, he has attended Brent Grablachoff’s Kicking World camps in Chattanooga and at Roncalli.
The hard work has been paying off; Strykowski has had a great senior year thus far. Coming into Friday’s match-up with Cathedral, he is 38 of 38 on points after touchdown. He is 4 of 5 on field goal attempts with a long of 37 yards (he has made a 56 yard attempt in practice). He led the conference in touchbacks and was less than a yard off of leading in average kickoff yardage as well.
“Merrick came in as a kid who clearly had some talent, but maybe more importantly was someone who had a drive and a desire to work and improve. Many times, that can be what leads to the development of a kicker – the willingness to be coached and the work ethic to put the time in,” explained his position coach. “Realistically, in most years he would have been a starter at placekicker as a junior for us (he did get to handle the punting duties for most of the season); in most other programs he likely would have started as a sophomore based on where he was at talent-wise. He just happened to be following a guy in Patrick Sandler who did get the chance to start as a sophomore and developed into one of the most clutch kickers we’ve ever had.”
Merrick is quick to give credit to his kicking coach. “He’s a great coach. He always knows exactly what to tell you when he sees a mistake. I’ve been blessed to have him as my coach and to develop such a strong bond with him,” Merrick proclaimed. After all, he is one of the main reasons Merrick decided to come to Roncalli. He wanted to be coached by his uncle.
“It’s been pretty special,” Chris Strykowski reflected. “The typical Uncle-Nephew relationship normally gets described as like having a cool, much older brother. While we have had that, I’ve also served as his teacher twice, and at times, I feel like I’m also a second father in addition to being a coach. How many people can even relate to that type of dynamic?”
Chris first came to Roncalli in 2000. After meeting with Principal Chuck Weisenbach, he was introduced to Head Coach Bruce Scifres. Learning of Chris’s background (he played at Cathedral), Coach Scifres offered him a position with the freshman staff. In 2001, he took over the role of varsity Special Teams Coordinator.
In his first few years, Chris was very curious as to how other teams were handling their special teams. The results of his investigations were not exactly inspiring. “What I found out was that most were doing the exact the same thing – no one specifically working with those kids (specialists), a sense that coaches would hope for the best but not fully trust them under pressure, and that handling the actual teams would either be done as a committee among the coaches (no real continuity to what they were doing) or it was forced on the lowest member of the staff who was likely clamoring to rise to another role so they wouldn’t have to do it anymore.”
He made it his mission to change that, not just at Roncalli, but around the Midwest. Phone calls were made, trips were taken, roundtables were held with anyone who wanted to truly invest in bettering themselves in the forgotten third of the game. Before long, Chris had gained a reputation around the area as a go-to source for innovative special teams concepts and quality information on the art of kicking.
“Knowing where many programs were when I began and seeing the changes that have taken place around the Midwest (I can say that because I have had contact with coaches from every state in the area, some out west and even Canada through presenting at multiple Glazier Clinics) and knowing that I helped to promote this has been gratifying. Having to fight in a way for the integrity of that part of the game makes the work and effort put in that much more special.”
During his eighteen years at Roncalli, he has served as an assistant coach on four state championship teams and one runner-up. He has also helped mentor and develop three All-State kickers, including a nominee for Mr. Football (Oehrle). Still, he felt like there was unfinished business to attend to.
“Over the years I’ve had numerous people ask me why I haven’t gone after head coaching jobs previously or for jobs at places that would pay more, and I think that ultimately it comes back to things like this. When their family (his brother, Steven) made the choice to move him (Merrick) from Franklin Township and send him to St. Jude, I truly felt like me staying at Roncalli was part of a larger plan. When he decided in 8th grade that he wanted to just be a kicker and give up being a position player, I knew that I had something to do with that decision – I feel a certain responsibility to him because of that. I truly believe that St. Jude and Roncalli have been a crucial part of his development and me remaining here has been part of God’s plan for the both of us.”
Much like his mentor, Coach Scifres, faith has is at the core of Chris’s coaching philosophy. “When talking about a coach’s impact, I always feel like the question has to be asked, ‘what have they done to change the lives of their players 10-20-30 years from now?’ Bruce unapologetically has lived a life devoted to Christ and always kept that at the forefront of everything that we did. He modeled on a daily basis how to live a life devoted to Christ, and that will transform a young man more drastically than any drill, play, win or loss might,” explained Strykowski.
“When Scott Marsh got the job, they hired someone in Bruce’s mold by getting someone who is very genuine and approaches the building of team culture in much the same way. That same sense of leading by example and living a life of purpose and service with Christ at the core has endured. The example of leading your team the way that you lead your life is something that is very genuine and will be an idea that I not only take with me if I am blessed with a head coaching position in the future but will very intentionally work to instill in my staff and team culture.”
As for now, there is the aforementioned unfinished business to attend to. The AP has given a slight nod to the Rebels this Friday, but the IFCA and Sagarin rankings prefer the Irish. There is a very real chance that this game could come down to the Strykowski connection.