If and when Nordonia boys soccer returns to the field this fall, the Knights will do so under a new head coach. 

After the Knights made positive strides the last few seasons, however, don’t expect drastic changes. Nordonia has decided to hire its new head man from within.

Nordonia athletic director Rob Eckenrode announced Derek Mercer has been promoted to head coach of the Knights, replacing his long-time friend Jason Stepp.

According to Eckenrode, Stepp resigned in March on "The day before we went on pandemic hiatus" for personal reasons. Mercer’s position will be ratified with the Nordonia Board of Education at a future meeting. 

"I appreciate all the hard work Jason has done over the last few years," Eckenrode said. "We’ve seen marked improvement under his direction. I think our new coach can build on what Jason started and we can see our soccer program continue to improve."

Mercer was a varsity assistant coach last year and helped lead Nordonia to a 6-6-5 record while playing a rigorous schedule. Nordonia was eliminated from the Division I playoffs by Brecksville-Broadview Heights 3-0 in the first round, after beating the Bees 3-0 in the regular season, which might have been a program first. 

Eckerode said Mercer beat out a field of six applicants, noting "Soccer coaches don’t grow on trees."

"The No. 1 thing is his energy and enthusiasm," Eckenrode said. "That came out in the process a lot. Derek’s been with us the last five years. His knowledge of the sport and 15 years of coaching experience were big. All of those played a major role in my recommendation."

A 2005 graduate of Woodridge High School, Mercer received an associate’s degree in computer networking from the University of Akron in 2008, but found through his experience at Akron he did not wish pursue work in that field. 

Instead, Mercer latched onto his love of coaching and working with children, a process that began while still in high school as he coached youth soccer with the Woodridge Recreation Association.

He coached youth at the Riverfront YMCA in Cuyahoga Falls, as well as coaching the Falls’ middle school program 2012 and 2013 and girls high school program in 2014 before joining Stepp’s staff in 2015. 

Mercer’s professional life has mirrored his coaching life. When he joined the staff at Nordonia, he also arrived at the Longwood YMCA, where he is now branch’s executive director.

"I’ve been at Longwood every since Jason Stepp came up here," Mercer said. "A lot of my coaching and experience has led me up here."

Mercer said much of what he plans on doing is "Keeping what Jason started going." He plans to focus on building up Nordonia’s youth soccer programs, both through the YMCA and the Nordonia Hills Soccer Association. 

"I think we all want Jason to stay with the program any way he can," Mercer said "Me being his assistant the last few years, I didn’t want someone coming in an disrupting what we built up. I want to keep growing it and keep building in the right direction."

With continuity being such a key aspect of his transition plan, Mercer said he plans to retain most of Nordonia’s current coaching staff.

Mercer said he remained committed to Nordonia, even when the opportunity to become head coach at his alma mater arose last winter.

"I did not apply for the Woodridge job," Mercer said. "I just believe in what we’re doing at Nordonia and felt that I was good here. I work in Macedonia. I love Woodridge, but I’m really happy with where I am."

Ironically, the Woodridge boys program will be led this fall by another former Nordonia assistant: Kalman Toth.

Mercer said Nordonia’s schedule is set for the fall. He knows the Knights remain in one of the toughest boys soccer leagues in the state as they play the Suburban League National Conference.

"We don’t have titles yet," Mercer said. "Hopefully, we can work on that in the next few years. All of the other assistant coaches who came through the program know how hard the Suburban League is."

"Our job is to keep the momentum going," he added. "I’m not going to say the hard goal is have a certain number of wins. My thing is tell the guys that, if they work hard in off-season training, the results will come naturally. Nordonia is on the climb up."

Noting that soccer remains in a "no-contact" period due to OHSAA rules, Mercer said he wouldn’t be sure of Nordonia’s tactical plans until he could get a good look at his team on the field.

"Honestly, until we see these kids on Aug. 1, it’s too early to tell," Mercer said. 

While Aug. 1 is the scheduled date to open practice for the OHSAA’s fall season, both Mercer and Eckenrode acknowledged the viability of the fall season remains in limbo due to the coronavirus pandemic.  

"It’s hard. I don’t know if I could put words to it," Mercer said.  

"We’re in a holding pattern with all our coaches right now," Eckenrode said. "We’re open to anything. Everything is on the table as far as what could happen. I hope it’s going to happen. I don’t have any inside information. As long as those restrictions are in place, the OHSAA will honor them."

Reporter Michael Leonard can be reached at 330-541-9442, mleonard@recordpub.com or @MLeonard_GAN on Twitter.