COMING OUT of St. Joseph's Prep in 2007, Jeff Battipaglia wasn't sure whether the U.S. Naval Academy was for him. Those initial doubts lingered into the beginning of his time at Annapolis, Md.

"First coming [to the Naval Academy], I had a lot of doubts and I was worried," Battipaglia said. "I missed home and all that."

Eventually, he adjusted to Annapolis, but failed to get on the field during his freshman season. At the end of that year, Paul Johnson left Navy to become the coach at Georgia Tech. With the promotion of Ken Niumatalolo to head coach, Battipaglia went from a never-used freshman to a mainstay in the Midshipmen's offensive line.

This week, he was named to the first team of the Phil Steele All-Independent squad.

Other than the 2007 Poinsettia Bowl against Utah, Battipaglia has started every game under Niumatalolo. At the start of this season, he was on the watch list for the Lombardi Award, given to the nation's best down lineman or linebacker.

"It was great honor to have the opportunity to get in there and start as a sophomore," Battipaglia said as the Middies prepared to play Army today at Lincoln Financial Field. "Luckily, I've been able to stay healthy over the years, and I've been able to help the team out as best I could."

As his on-field performance prospered, Battipaglia started to feel more comfortable off the field.

"It's been a big maturing process," he said. "Coming here, you go through a lot of changes. Even in football, you're jumping from high school to college, and it's a whole other level. It's been a big maturing process on all levels. But it's been a great experience and I'm a lot better off for it. I'm proud to be here."

Battipaglia also has grown as a leader, Niumatalolo said.

"On the field, he's been as good of an offensive tackle as we've had during our option era," Niumatalolo said. "Off the field, he's never been in trouble. He's been a model Midshipman. He's done well academically. He's excelled at every phase of the academy. We're going to miss him tremendously. We're going to miss him as a leader. He's been a great role model for the younger players."

"I think I've seen him grow up, but he was a great person when he came here," Niumatalolo added. "He comes from a great family. You can tell he was raised on great morals and great principles. He's kind of expanded on that with the things he's learned from the academy."

Battipaglia was born in Philadelphia and dreamed of playing in Veterans Stadium. As a senior at St. Joe's Prep, he was named to the Daily News first-team All-City in 2006. After graduating, he was named to the Daily News' second-team Catholic League All-Decade Team. His connection to the city makes the annual Army-Navy game that much more significant.

"I love going up there," Battipaglia said. "We go up on Thursday afternoon, and after checking into a hotel, we go and get a cheesesteak from Pat's Steaks. It's great playing in front of a home crowd. It was always my dream to play at the Vet, but that turned into the Linc. I'm honored to be a part of the game."

Though today's is the last college game Battipaglia will play in his hometown, he is upbeat.

"Being out here with our last week of practice with the senior guys, it's great to go out there one last time," he said. "At the same time, it's sad knowing things are coming to an end. We have to take advantage of our opportunity here that we have and really enjoy it for what it's worth." *