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Joe Merlino achieves longtime goal with Les Schwab Bowl selection; ex-Central Catholic star will be representing his new team — the Union Titans

He'll be the lone Washington representative in Saturday's game. “Washington has dudes,” he said.
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By Dan Brood 

Joe Merlino pretty much did it all in his junior season with the Central Catholic High School football team.

The lineman helped the Rams go 15-0 in the 2021 fall campaign. He was in on five tackles, including one sack, while also having a game-high three quarterback hits for Central Catholic in its 41-14 win over Tualatin in the Class 6A state championship game.

Merlino was named a first-team all-state offensive lineman and a second-team all-state defensive lineman by Oregon Prep Redzone.

There was only one thing left to top things off — a chance to play in the Les Schwab Bowl.

Done and done.

Merlino achieved a longtime goal by being picked to play for Team Columbia in the 2022 high school football all-star game, which will be played Saturday at Linfield University in McMinnville.

“It means everything to me,” the 6-foot-3, 280-pound Merlino said following a Team Columbia practice Tuesday. “I’ve watched a lot of guys before me play in this game. I was a little freshman on the 2019 state championship squad, and I saw a lot of those guys come play here. Since then, I said, ‘My goal is to come and play in this game.’ For sure, 100 percent, that’s been a goal.”

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By playing in Saturday’s contest, Merlino, who will be on the defensive line for Team Columbia when it faces Team Willamette, is following in a former teammate’s footsteps.

“I had a guy I really looked up to named Jordan Reed — he’s at Brown right now,” Merlino said. “He played in this game, and I said, ‘I’ve got to play in this game. It looks really fun.’”

In Saturday’s game, Merlino will be joined on Team Columbia by Central Catholic players Cru Newman, Timmy Mitchell, Gibson Coyle, Beau CressAllen and Matix Carpenter, as well as Rams head coach Steve Pyne, who is the head coach for Team Columbia.

But Merlino won’t be representing Central Catholic in Saturday’s contest. Instead, he’ll be representing Union High School of Vancouver, Wash., as he’ll be playing for the Titans this fall in his senior season.

“My family moved, and I was like, ‘I’m not going to make that 45-minute drive every day,’” Merlino said with a laugh. “Union is amazing. I love that program. Coach Ro (Rory Rosenbach) out there has built an amazing program. I love that coach.”

Merlino will be the only Washington representative in Saturday’s game.

“Washington has dudes,” he said.

But he’s also grateful to play one more game with some of his former Central Catholic teammates.

“It’s great to get one last ride in with all of these guys, because I love this team,” Merlino said. “I’ll do anything for these guys. I’m not going to lie: Last year’s team was pretty much unstoppable.”

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As for Saturday’s game, Merlino sees a good battle coming up.

“I’ve played with a lot of those guys on the other side of the ball, and I know a lot of them, and it’s going to be amazing,” he said. “This game is going to be another good head-to-head with Coach Pyne and the Tualatin coach (Team Willamette head coach Dan Lever).”

Most of all, Merlino is happy to see his Les Schwab Bowl dream come true.

“This has been a goal of mine since three or four years ago. I’ve had my mind set on this. I’m happy to be here,” he said.

This year’s Les Schwab Bowl, presented by Express Employment Professionals, and serving as a fundraiser for various youth charities, includes many of the top players from around the state, including underclassmen, as well as a player from southwest Washington. This is the 74th game in the series, but the first that won’t be North vs. South. Instead, players were drafted by Team Columbia head coach Steve Pyne, who led Central Catholic to the 2021 Class 6A state championship, and Team Willamette head coach Dan Lever, who guided Tualatin to the Class 6A title tilt.

Saturday’s event begins with tailgating at 2 p.m., featuring Golden Valley Brewing, Stoller Family Wine and more. Gates open at 4 p.m., with kickoff slated for 6 p.m.

Tickets for the game can be purchased online, at The game also can be streamed online, at a cost of $10, at

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