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Former GCC athlete finding role with Midshipmen

| Thursday, Sept. 27, 2012, 9:12 p.m.
Greensburg Central Catholic graduate Bernie Sarra. Courtesy of Naval Academy

Bernie Sarra had the scrimmage of a lifetime.

It earned him something of a trip of a lifetime — and the springboard for a positive start to his burgeoning college football career.

Sarra, a Monessen native and Greensburg Central Catholic graduate, earned his spot on the active traveling roster for the Naval Academy's football team by way of an eye-opening performance in an intra-squad scrimmage a week before Navy opened its season by playing Notre Dame in Dublin, Ireland, Sept. 1.

“It was the best feeling in the world,” Sarra said of being told he had made the “travel squad” as a freshman and was going to play for Navy in a historical chapter of the historic rivalry with Notre Dame. “It was a goal fulfilled. Just great.”

Sarra, a 6-foot-1, 290-pound nose guard, played nine snaps for the Midshipmen in their loss to the Fighting Irish. Two weeks later, Navy played at Penn State's Beaver Stadium.

Sarra grew up a fan of the Nittany Lions. His uncle, Joe Sarra, spent more than two decades as a coach and a member of the football staff at Penn State.

“Before I realized I was too short, Penn State was always my No. 1 school to go to,” Sarra said with a laugh.

Instead, he ended up in Annapolis at the United States Naval Academy — a place in which it takes a resume equally extraordinary academically and athletically to get in.

“He's a strong kid with real good feet and good size — and he's pretty football smart,” Navy defensive line coach Dale Pehrson said. “He seems to catch on real quickly to a lot of what we're trying to do.”

Sarra initially opened the eyes of Navy coaches while a high school senior at a camp, but it was the impression he made during a scrimmage late last month that earned him his first collegiate playing time.

Eight days prior to the season opener in Ireland, Sarra had yet to earn the right to travel to — and be in uniform for — road games. But he was practicing with the “upper group,” a somewhat uncommon occurrence for a freshman (Sarra attended the Naval Academy's prep school last year after graduating from Greensburg Central Catholic in 2011).

“He was actually with the scout team for that scrimmage, and he'd been there all fall,” Pehrson said. “I'd told him the week before he'd not be traveling; I didn't want his family to buy a ticket to Ireland without knowing if he'd be playing. But he was working with the older guys, and you could see he was making strides. After that scrimmage, with what he showed, I talked with (head coach Ken Niumatalolo), and we told him he was going on the trip. He earned it.”

Sarra is listed third on the depth chart at nose guard, but like many other teams at various levels, Navy prefers to rotate defensive linemen during games to keep them fresh.

The Midshipmen had their first losing season since 2002 last season, going 5-7. One of Sarra's primary goals for his college career is to be part of a 10-win Midshipmen team. Another is to beat Army, of course.

By the sounds of his position coach, Sarra can grow into playing a significant role in such team successes.

“I think he's going to be a really good player,” Pehrson said. “We have very few freshman who even work with the older guys, and he showed something right off the bat and on his tapes from prep school games that he could.

“He moves pretty well for a big guy. I think he's going to be a real good player and a real good student-athlete.”

Chris Adamski is a freelance writer.

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