Forty seconds in a relatively meaningless 72-57 nonconference win over Von Steuben on Friday was all the time any person with a remote sense of basketball knowledge needed to see Riverside-Brookfield High School senior Jack VandeMerkt in full effect.
With RBHS up 16-15 against the visiting Panthers at the 6:42 mark of the second quarter, the Bulldogs’ 6-foot-7 senior center treated fans to an entertaining personal seven-point run, which included an angled left baseline runner for a bucket, a monstrous breakaway two-handed dunk and a three-point basket from the top of the key.
VandeMerkt, who finished with 25 points and six rebounds, also contributed an array of post moves, ran the wing beautifully on assorted fast breaks, blocked shots and jumped passing lanes for multiple deflections.
On Saturday, VandeMerkt riddled Glenbard South to the tune of 18 points and 14 rebounds in a 69-54 Metro Suburban Conference win. According to VandeMerkt, versatility is simply par for the course if you’re a Bulldogs center.
“If you look at the past, all of our ‘bigs’ have been pretty versatile. We’re a byproduct of the system,” VandeMerkt said. “In the summer, we do a lot of shooting and ball-handling drills. Offensively, we play four players out, one in or sometimes five out, so we have to be able to do everything on the court.”
While it’s true recent RBHS frontline players (all graduated) like Miki Ljuboja, Alex Djiagwa, Charlie Morrissey and Terrence Reed could hurt opponents in many ways, there’s something unique about VandeMerkt.
First off all, his last name carries considerable cachet round the RBHS campus. His grandfather, Bill, was a former star quarterback for the Bulldogs before serving as a longtime athletic director and head football coach at the school, while his dad, Scott, also starred athletically at RBHS. Both played quarterback at Western Illinois University.
In terms of siblings, Jack’s older brother Billy (another family quarterback), earned Class 6A Coaches’ Association all-state recognition in 2009 at RBHS before starring under center at St. Joseph College in Rensselaer, Ind. After a solid volleyball and basketball career with the Bulldogs, Alleigh VandeMerkt (Jack’s older sister) is currently attending Endicott College in Beverly, Mass. and is a standout sophomore setter on the Gulls’ volleyball team.
The Bulldogs’ boys and girls holiday basketball tournaments are named after Jack’s grandfather.
“Everybody knows who you are, and it’s something I’m proud of,” VandeMerkt said about the family name. “If I had to do it all over again, I’d choose RB in a second. I’ve loved spending time with my teammates, coaches and teachers. The AP Honors program is great and I’ve developed good habits academically and athletically at RB.”
VandeMerkt has also learned the value of perseverance and toughness as a Bulldog. During the 2013 football season, he separated his left shoulder two times, cutting his season short as the RBHS starting quarterback. Sophomore Ryan Swift performed admirably in place of the injured VandeMerkt.
“The first time I separated my shoulder it wasn’t too bad and I was out a couple of weeks,” VandeMerkt said. “When I was playing wide receiver in practice I was tackled funny and that was a more severe grade-two separation. I was one hit away from a grade-three separation, which would have meant surgery, and I didn’t want any part of that, so we shut it down.”
To his credit, VandeMerkt supported the Bulldogs and served as a mentor of sorts for Swift during the Bulldogs’ frustrating 1-8 campaign.
“Ryan worked harder than anybody during last offseason,” VandeMerkt said. “I think he’s going to be really good. He’s obviously a big part of the future for RB football.”
With the shoulder pads put away for good, VandeMerkt attended to the business of getting ready for basketball. In some respects, it’s still a work in progress despite VandeMerkt putting together a superb senior season.
“It’s been trial by error,” he said. “Before the season started, I had to take some time off from weightlifting. I’m just starting to get back into that now and really strengthening my shoulder. I showed up at some opens gyms, got some shots up. It took about four weeks to really get up to speed.”
The hard work is paying off on the court. After a breakout junior campaign, VandeMerkt has emerged along with fellow senior starter Will Kincanon as the Bulldogs’ unquestioned leaders.
“Jack has really elevated his game,” Kincanon said. “He’s providing leadership and doing a nice job scoring-wise, rebounding and playing tough defense.”
He’s also perfected the art of the crowd-pleasing slam dunk after a couple of memorable misguided jam attempts last season.
“I missed two [dunks] against Elmwood Park on Senior Night last year,” VandeMerkt recalled with a laugh. “One I lost on the way up and the other one I took off too early, like four feet outside the lane. Coach [Tom] McCloskey wasn’t too happy at the time, but he loves it when I dunk, because it changes the momentum of the game.”
VandeMerkt credits much of his dunking development to time spent as a high-jumper on the RBHS track and field team.
“I’ve had some success with track,” he said. “It’s helped my flexibility and jumping ability. Plus, I like to be out there in the spring competing against other guys.”
Drawing recruiting interest from several Division III basketball programs, including DePauw University, Illinois Wesleyan and University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh among others, VandeMerkt will make his decision sometime this winter or spring.
“I hear from Division III coaches all the time about Jack,” McCloskey said. “He’s improved so much since his sophomore years it’s pretty remarkable. He’s versatile, works hard and really cares about basketball.
“Jack’s grandfather took me under his wing and gave me my first head coaching job,” McCloskey added. “His older brother, Billy, was one of the toughest kids I have ever coached. Now, I’ve got Jack so there’s a lot of RB tradition within the VandeMerkt family.”