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St. Joe's Prep grad quickly rises into Navy's starting ranks

SOME PEOPLE heed the call. Others go through the rest of their lives wondering. Navy sophomore offensive tackle Jeff Battipaglia didn't want to be that guy.

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SOME PEOPLE heed the call.

Others go through the rest of their lives wondering. Navy sophomore offensive tackle Jeff Battipaglia didn't want to be that guy.

That is why he turned down scholarship offers at Penn State, Wisconsin and Arizona State. The St. Joseph's Prep graduate and Newtown, Bucks County, native wanted to serve his country. Battipaglia never even visited Happy Valley.

"By my sophomore year," Battipaglia said, "I had already had it narrowed down to West Point [Army] and Annapolis [Navy].

"I guess you could say that I just felt the calling for it. I fell in love with it."

Like presumably many Midshipmen, Battipaglia was "profoundly" impacted by the events of Sept. 11, even though he was only a seventh-grader.

Battipaglia's father, Joe, witnessed the terrorist attacks firsthand. He is a financial analyst, and his office was right across the street from the World Trade Center.

"You could tell that he was very influenced by 9/11," said Gil Brooks, Battipaglia's coach at the Prep. "I talk to most of my players about recruiting in their junior year.

"Jeff was a different story - he knew right away where he wanted to go," Brooks said.

Now a year and a half into his stay at the Naval Academy, Battipaglia has settled in - on and off the field. Battipaglia will run out of the tunnel tomorrow at Lincoln Financial Field as the starting left offensive tackle as the Midshipmen (7-4) play Army (3-8).

Coming into training camp this season, Battipaglia was third on the depth chart. He since has leaped over two seniors for the starting job.

"Coming into camp, I was still at the bottom of the depth chart," Battipaglia said. "I was able to work my way up to starter by the opening game of the season against Towson."

Not bad for a guy who just hoped to make the travel roster this season.

"I think I just one-upped myself," Battipaglia said.

While he might have surprised the Navy coaching staff - and maybe even himself - the jump didn't surprise Brooks.

"I knew that if he got an opportunity, he would perform," Brooks said. "He really is an elite college football player. He played both offense and defense for us. Jeff has this ability to mirror and change direction as well as anyone.

"I knew that he would catch the coaches' eye sooner or later."

Off the field, Battipaglia is finally getting acclimated to the rigors of military life. He acknowledged that his freshman year, or "plebe year," was rough.

"You are basically indoctrinated into the military," Battipaglia said. "It was tough to handle school and playing football at such an elite level. But it is rewarding, at the same time."

Brooks describes the 6-4, 250-pound Battipaglia as "quietly confident" and "self-effacing." Those are two apt definitions of someone who in 3 years will be a naval officer with men and women under his command.

"Jeff is not a hot dog," Brooks said. "He was always humble. He was driven and worked very hard. He was confident in his abilities, but not overly confident or overly vocal."

Just how impressive is Battipaglia's character?

"I'd have him marry my daughter in a second," Brooks said, giving Battipaglia the ultimate compliment. "They don't come better than Jeff."

Battipaglia didn't get a chance to square off against Army - the school he almost chose - last year. He dressed for the game, but didn't play.

"I have been thinking about this game all season," Battipaglia said. "I have been trying not to think about the crowd and the whole atmosphere."

There is one small difference from last year. It's not in Baltimore.

"This is my hometown," he said. "I am nervous and excited just talking about it." *