Splitting time among two school teams and a city league isn’t easy for any basketball player, let alone scoring 32 points in the varsity championship game while maintaining other responsibilities off the court. But while most junior high kids were busy playing knock-out or heaving granny-shots, young Zach Mercado was a baller, already a seasoned veteran on the hardwood.
Mercado wasn’t new to basketball in the eighth grade. He had loved the game since he was a little kid, and his parents made sure he could participate in youth leagues in their hometown of Phoenix, Ariz., throughout elementary school. A student at the small Christian school where his parents both worked, Mercado joined the junior high team in sixth grade and played for both the junior high and varsity squads in seventh grade.
He logged only a few varsity minutes that year, but the next season was entirely different. “Eighth grade was probably my best year of basketball,” Mercado said. “Eighth grade year, I had 32 points in the varsity championship game. We realized this team didn’t really have much of a guard, so we pressured them and got a lot of steals. I ran out and got a bunch of layups. It was pretty crazy; my parents were quite proud.”
The three seasons following his definitive junior high performance were increasingly frustrating for the young athlete. He was growing as a player, but his league was moving in the opposite direction. “The competition continued to drop lower and lower, and schools began to leave our league for various reasons. We were left without much competition.” After remaining undefeated in conference play in ninth, tenth and eleventh grades, it was time for a change. “My junior year was especially bad. Halfway through the game, coach would take me and a couple of other guys out because we were beating a team by 40 and tell us not to score anymore. It just wasn’t basketball.”
Mercado needed only two more high school classes to graduate after his junior year and was already working at In-N-Out Burger in his free time. He planted a bug in his parents’ ear about homeschooling and playing basketball for the local public school. But the decision was out of the family’s hands altogether.
“That summer, the [Christian] school had to close for financial reasons, and enrollment was really down. I was disappointed. But at the same time, it allowed me to do what I had asked,” Mercado said. The Christian school kid then found himself playing basketball for a 4A public high school. “[The members of the team] were really receptive, which was nice,” Mercado said. “I didn’t really expect that. There were nine seniors on the team, so there was a lot of fighting for playing time.”
He already knew a number of the players from local pickup games, and he gradually gained respect and playing time before earning a starting position around Christmas. Not only did his on-the-court reputation grow, but his Christian faith also stood out as a testimony to his friends on the team as well. “They had me pray before every game [out] of their own initiation in the locker room,” Mercado said. “And I had a lot of good conversations with guys on road trips when they’d ask me about different things or what I believe.”
Following his senior year, Mercado was ready to take on college basketball at Northland International University. God had other plans, however, as Mercado suffered a back injury when jumping off of a wall the spring before his first semester. “It hurt pretty bad, but I didn’t really think anything of it,” Mercado said. “After three months of not getting it checked out, I thought it would just kind of go away. It progressed into a herniated disc.” Mercado, who was projected to contribute a great deal for the Northland Pioneers, was rendered nearly unable to walk before the season began and ultimately missed his entire first year of basketball there.
“Honestly, it was of God, because that enabled me to travel with one of their ministry teams the second semester of my freshman year. That kept me from having to work that summer to go back to school in the fall, and I was able to work at Camp Ironwood,” Mercado said. He had always wanted to work at a Christian camp, but he got even more than he bargained for that summer. Carlisle Burch, a student from BJU, was working there as well, and little did Mercado know she would eventually become his fiancée.
The combination of academic interests and Burch started to turn Mercado’s sights toward BJU, but he had already committed to playing for Northland his sophomore year. That season turned out to be a terrific comeback for him, and it included the biggest game of his career — on his birthday.
Mercado decided that his time at Northland had drawn to a close, however, and he prepared to give up intercollegiate sports and embrace the intramural program here at BJU. That’s when he got the text from Burch, saying that BJU was beginning intercollegiate sports.
“I was all ready to get into intramurals and play soccer again,” Mercado said. “But when I heard that, I was like, ‘Oh wow, that must be of God.’” Soon afterward, he discovered that rival coach Neal Ring would be running the new Bruins program and that Andrew Wingreen, from Northland, would be coaching as well. Mercado came to meet with Coach Ring and visit the school, and he was even here for the unveiling ceremony of BJU’s mascot.
The rest is history still in the making, as Mercado leads his team through the South Regional Tournament this weekend. The Bruins captain has led his team from six wins last year to a regular season record of 16-14, and his hard-nosed, fiery style of play will set a precedent for generations of Bruins athletes to come. Just like the eighth-grader who scored 32 points in a varsity championship game or the high-schooler who had to earn the respect of a new team, Mercado will continue to battle the odds, earn respect for the young Bruins program, and honor Christ with his love of basketball.