For Sermarini, ad-libbed career

Football: The playbook is just a guide for Western Maryland's quarterback, whose inspired scrambles drive opponents crazy.

College football

October 12, 1999|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

Because Ron Sermarini is, just maybe, the best college football player in all of Maryland, it seems almost silly to question his frenetic style of play.

In the midst of his senior season at Western Maryland College, Sermarini is a two-time MVP in the Centennial Conference, holding 21 school and conference records.

But in 1996, the quarterback was a freshman, and he entered the third game of the year, against Gettysburg, to relieve an ineffective starter. The pocket collapsed, and Sermarini took off around end, dashing upfield as the question raced through the minds of spectators: What is he thinking?

The answer, provided when Sermarini knocked a Gettysburg defender on his back, stumbling for another 10 yards before he finally went down: Who cares?

Sermarini said he doesn't remember the play, but others still talk about it -- teammates, his parents, coach Tim Keating; even Keating's son, Matthew. Western Maryland lost the game, but the team had met its leader for the next four years.

"From that point on," offensive lineman Terry Otto said, "he had the starting job."

"That let the kids know that he was a football player," said Ron's father, Anthony, a high school football coach in New Jersey. "I was thinking to myself, `Your quarterback isn't supposed to do that.' But he proved something to everyone on the team."

The next season, against the same team, Sermarini dropped back to pass and the pocket collapsed again. He rolled to the right, ran back left and then raced right again before throwing to Donte Abron in the end zone during a 55-7 win. It was the third straight win in a streak of 25 regular-season victories, a school and conference record.

There are other, similar stories about how, with the Green Terror facing a loss of yards or the loss of a game, Sermarini rescued himself and, by extension, the team. The latest bailout occurred two weeks ago at Muhlenberg.

The Green Terror, down 14-7 in the fourth quarter, had the ball at its 2-yard line, and, as Keating remembers, "[Sermarini] waited until a third-and-five to get us going," hitting Teron Powell for 22 yards on a crossing pattern that had missed several times before.

Western Maryland didn't face another third down the rest of the way on the 98-yard touchdown drive, the first of two in the last five minutes of a 21-14 win.

"Ronnie's level of play is extremely high," Keating said. "So our expectations of him are high. But he's lived up to those expectations so far."

The Green Terror has won the Centennial Conference title and made the Division III playoffs the past two seasons with a variety of key players.

This year's roster includes Tommy Salecky, a two-time All-America linebacker, and Marvin Deal, a cornerback who has 24 career interceptions. On offense, Western Maryland can also depend on the talents of Otto, Powell and running back Joe Kendorski.

But Sermarini is the one who creates nightmares for opposing coaches. Through five games this season, he's had two 100-yard rushing games and six touchdown runs to go along with his 1,030 yards passing, including 10 touchdown throws.

His 7,210 yards of total offense and 57 touchdown passes are career conference records.

"He's outstanding," Gettysburg coach Barry Streeter said. "His athleticism and his knowledge of what they're doing offensively makes him an outstanding player. He makes their offense go for sure."

"He takes up most of your preparation during the week because there's so many things he does," Johns Hopkins coach Jim Margraff said. "You think that you're doing a good job and, with most quarterbacks it's a 12-yard sack, but with him he'll make a move and shake himself free.

"He's a Division I football player. You can say he's in a Division III body [5 feet 10, 172 pounds], but he's better than a lot of players up there."

After attending his father's practices while growing up, Sermarini was well-groomed to play quarterback for Robert Nanni at Toms River (N.J.) North High School, where his team lost only two games in his final two seasons.

Two factors kept college programs away, including another Centennial Conference school, Ursinus, which has Sermarini's father in its athletic hall of fame.

One was the small frame that forced him out of basketball, even though he was one of the best players on the Jersey Shore. The other was that his team didn't throw very much because it had a major-college prospect at running back.

Nanni's running-dominated offense became a blessing for Sermarini. Because his passing opportunities were few, he used his creativity to capitalize on them.

"We passed here and there, but I knew that I had to make a play, otherwise we weren't going to throw the ball again," Sermarini said.

Keating was one of the few lookers, discovering Sermarini because of Nanni, an ex-college teammate.

Though he was conditioned to scramble in high school, he continued at Western Maryland because of his size.

"I've always known that I'd always have to throw on the run, or I'd be in trouble," Sermarini said. "I knew I'd have to make plays and throw to guys doing crazy things."

Keating made a comparison between his quarterback and Buffalo Bills starter Doug Flutie. Each is undersized and has been underestimated.

"Give [Sermarini] a chance, and he can play for anybody," Keating said.

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