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P’burg’s Barna plays football with right kind of “nastiness”

The name Barna resonates through Phillipsburg athletic history.

Until now, it’s mostly been remembered for wrestling, as John Barna won three state championships for the Stateliners (1980-82) and his brother Mike one (1984).

But Matt Barna, son of Mike, nephew of John, may be changing the sport associated with the Barna name, at least for now, to football.

Matt, a junior, is the starting center and nose tackle for the 6-0 Stateliners, ranked No. 4 in the region by lehighvalleylive, who travel to North Hunterdon (4-2) Friday night (7) in a Mid-State 38 cross-over game.

And while Matt Barna has not wrestled since sixth grade, at least some of the sport’s ruggedness and intensity still runs through his game.

“Matt has the nastiness -- in a good, football way -- you want your linemen to play with,” Phillipsburg head coach Frank Duffy said. “He plays with aggression and is very athletic.”

Barna wouldn’t want to play for any other team.

“They take football more seriously at Phillipsburg than a lot of other places,” he said. “It’s definitely a different place. Here, everybody works hard, everybody plays with emotion. I have been playing football since I was 5 years old. I just love Phillipsburg football. The players are great, playing under these coaches is great.”

Barna, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound Alpha resident, is the only junior who starts on the Stateliner offensive line, and he fills a key spot at center. After all, if the snap isn’t right, not much else on offense will be.

“(Senior quarterback) Ben Ries and I did have some issues earlier this season,” Barna said. “We stayed and practiced snaps, and now we practice snaps before practice, during practice when we can.”

Barna came to the center spot after experience elsewhere up front.

“In middle school I was a tackle, and I have played guard,” Barna said. “In ninth grade I kind of wanted to be a tight end, but I got moved to center because we didn’t have the size.”

The offensive line as a whole has been a key element in the improvement of the Phillipsburg passing game, a development Duffy has been very pleased with in recent games, especially last week’s 28-7 defeat of Hillsborough.

“I think the coaches have been opening it up a little bit more,” Barna said. “We’ve been throwinh more in the last few games. Ben has gotten better at picking out receivers and knowing what he has to do.”

That’s because the pass protection has improved along with Ries, a first-year varsity starter. However, run blocking is still the bread and butter at P’burg.

“I’d say run blocking is harder than pass blocking; run blocking is really a different thing,” Barna said. “You have to know what track you’re in and what gap, and we have a lot of different running plays. Pass protection is about whether it’s a quick pass, a sprint-out, things like that.”

Barna doesn’t lack for physicality on offense but he gives the impression that it’s on defense that, from the enthusiasm in his voice, that “football nastiness” Duffy likes comes out.

“As the nose tackle, the idea is to knock people back, reset the line of scrimmage in the offensive backfield, and cause havoc,” Barna said.

That sounds like a lot of fun, but Barna had to work hard to be able to achieve that kind of havoc.

“I knew I had to get a lot stronger, especially because I’d be facing guys who are pretty big, 300-pound guys,” Barna said. “I had to improve my lower-body strength especially. We have great strength and conditioning coaches in (Craig) Merrick and (Mike) Corman. It’s a privilege to have them as coaches.”

Being a two-way lineman has helped Barna on both sides of the ball.

“It gives me an understanding for what I need to do to be effective.,” Barna said. “On offense I know what it is like to (for a defender) to get into a guy, and on defense I know that I have to go find the ball.”

Barna has been part of some key moments on defense in recent weeks such as two huge goal-line stands at Bridgewater-Raritan two weeks ago.

“I think everyone has each other’s back (in those situations),” Barna said. “We’ve had moments where things weren’t looking good and we stuck together and had confidence in our teammates. That gives us so much confidence when we are in a dogfight like (the goal-line stands).”

Brad Wilson may be reached at Follow him on Twitter @bradwsports. Find Lehigh Valley high school sports on Facebook.

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