Before hyperlocal became a buzz phrase and a media mentality, Gregg Sarra was hyped up about hyping Long Island high school sports.
"The reason I'm so passionate about local sports is that it evolves, it's constantly changing. The stories are always fresh. You never really know what to expect," said Sarra, the executive producer for Long Island sports at MSG Varsity and Newsday high school sports editor. "So that's my niche.
"I'm proud of the fact that my life's work has been in high school sports, and that people say high school sports has become prominent on Long Island."
Sarra's efforts as a journalist during the past 27 years is a primary reason. For his role in promoting high school sports on Long Island as well as his career as a top amateur athlete and youth sports coach, Sarra was inducted into the Suffolk County Sports Hall of Fame Thursday night at its annual induction ceremony dinner at the West Lake Inn in Patchogue.
The other inductees, most of whom Sarra wrote about for Newsday, were: Dick Berg, a former men's basketball coach at Dowling; Mike Canobbio, the current Lindenhurst baseball coach, who has won more than 500 games; Anthony Famiglietti, a former track star at Patchogue-Medford and two-time Olympian; Matt Farrago of Greenlawn, a former professional boxer; Chris and Peter Ferraro of Sound Beach, identical twins who played briefly for the Rangers during their NHL careers, and Joe Russo, a former outstanding wrestler and coach at Lindenhurst.
"What has made my career so satisfying is that I've had the ability to touch a lot of people's lives in a successful and very positive way and that I've understood that it may be the only time that the student-athlete has the opportunity to be in the paper or on TV," Sarra said. "I have to get it right because they're going to cherish that moment for the rest of their lives."
Sarra was instrumental in expanding Newsday's coverage of high school sports beyond the traditional sports of football, basketball, baseball and lacrosse. "I really cut my teeth as a writer covering high school wrestling," Sarra said. "I was a baseball-football guy, but I made wrestling my signature sport because I had so much respect for how demanding it was."
One of his favorite subjects was Rohan Murphy of East Islip, a double amputee above the knee who nevertheless grappled his way into the Suffolk County finals before losing by a single point in the closing seconds. "He was the first reporter to show an interest in my story. He made me feel special," said Murphy, now a motivational speaker on Long Island. "When I first met Gregg, he was the only person covering wrestling on Long Island. He loved the sport. He did amazing things for wrestling."
Similarly, Sarra was at the forefront of the girls' sports media boom on Long Island when he went to watch Nicole Kaczmarski play basketball at what then was Sachem High School. "A little spitfire with a great handle, a great jump shot. She had guts. She was a great player and she changed the way I looked at girls sports," Sarra said. "I was hooked. I watched her for five years. I watched her become the greatest girls basketball player in Long Island history. She changed the face of girls basketball and the way people looked at it. She packed the gyms, and Newsday started covering girls sports like crazy."
Kaczmarski, who now works as a color analyst at MSG Varsity, said, "I look to Gregg as one of my mentors. He has so much knowledge and he's a big part of what we do at MSG Varsity. You could tell he was passionate about what he was doing. He was one of the first people to have that excitement for girls sports."
Sarra always was excited about baseball, his favorite sport. One of the players he coached and then covered in high school was Marcus Stroman of Patchogue-Medford, now a star pitcher for Duke University. The junior leads the nation in strikeouts and is expected to be a first-round draft choice in June.
"Coach Gregg had a huge impact on my sports career. He was always there. He was like a second father," Stroman said. "He pushed me to be better and was the first coach I ever had with a confident edge, a never-want-to-lose attitude."
Hans Wiederkehr, the former Babylon football coach and current president of the Suffolk County Football Coaches Association, recalled Sarra's early years at Newsday. "He was in our locker room after a game and he had a great rapport with the kids right away," Wiederkehr said. "He's very well-respected by the coaches and he's very, very loyal to Long Island sports.
"He's been one of the icons in promoting high school sports in a positive manner," Wiederkehr added. "He is the eyes and ears of high school sports on Long Island. And the mouth!"