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Fort Hamilton O-Line leads undefeated Tigers

Port Richmond has Zamel Johnson, Torian Phillips and Jeremy Ramos. Curtis has Dominique Easley and Naykwan Johnson. Tottenville has Tremaine Wilson, Canarsie has Steven Rene and Sheepshead Bay has Ayo Isijola.

Fort Hamilton has its offensive line. The Tigers are fine with that trade-off.

While the rest of the city’s contenders enter the playoffs led by explosive skill-position players, 9-0 Fort Hamilton – one of only two level 5 undefeated teams with Port Richmond – will depend on an offensive line that consistently created holes wide enough for a truck to drive through.

“As they go,” Tigers coach Vinny Laino said, “we’ll go.”

Nobody was lauding the Tigers’ talent in September, not with an undersized quarterback in Frank Laino, the coach’s son, solid but unspectacular running backs and questionable playmakers out wide. Even the Tigers were unsure of their line, which returned just two starters. Yet, here they are, the third seed in the city, having proven at least a few doubters wrong after that 52-14 shellacking of Tottenville, which received the No. 13 seed, on Staten Island last Saturday night.

The five players – left tackle Sal Astuto, left guard Joel Pacheco, center Nick Fiorito, right guard Josh Horton and right tackle Nicky Hakanjin – up front, Laino said, are the reason for the flawless regular season, why his son was able to throw 12 touchdowns passes and run for nine more, why the combination of AJ Richardson and Gardner Robinson produced 1,500 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns.

“The most dedicated group of kids I ever had,” offensive line coach Ed Spinelli said.

Astuto and Horton were expected to be the backbone of the group. The other three weren’t even in the discussion. But during preseason, they stood out, outworking the projected starters day in and day out, mastering the zone blocking technique Fort Hamilton’s spread offense has used since 2000.

“I had to work doubly as hard as everyone,” Pacheco said. “When we went to camp, I just pushed myself even more.”

Said Astuto: “He executed every block.”

“We can’t get him off the field,” Laino said. “Every week we opened up that position and every week he won it.

The line is a mixture, the 18th-year coach said, of strength, speed and smarts. Zone blocking means each lineman is responsible for a space and not a man. Chemistry and cohesiveness, almost more than talent, is extremely important.

“Everyone has to be working together, everyone has to know their job,” said the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Horton. “You have to know your partner is going to do his job or it’s not going to work.”

Therefore, the coaching staff was unsure how a group put together so close to the start of the season would do. Plus, there were serious doubts if the three newcomers were even good enough to start.

“Through their persistence, their burning desire to get better every day, and hard work, they’ve gotten it done,” the coach said.

The quintet became fast friends. They also have fun together. At the end of camp, as a source of added motivation, Fiorito suggested they use a points system to judge who is the best lineman. One point was given for a pancake or sandwich block that knocked a defender on his rear end; two if it is done by one man.

They compute the points, Pacheco said, by watching film on Monday. Horton and Fiorito were leading at last count, but no regular season champion was decided. They will start from scratch now, what with the playoffs beginning.

During games, when linemen get beaten up and bloodied giving the skill position players time to make plays, the Fort Hamilton five enjoy themselves.

“After one of them pancakes someone,” Frank Laino said, “their smiling and jumping around.”

The group has symbolized the season Fort Hamilton has enjoyed. There are no singular talents, but a numbers of players in seek of success.  At the start of every week, the linemen must push a sled in a blocking drill. As a nod to their hard work, the skill players have done it too this fall. As the skinny speedsters try to emulate their stronger teammates, laughter usually breaks out.

“It’s hilarious,” said Pacheco, an undersized guard at 5-foot-7 and 220 pounds. “We love them for that, we know they care.”

The feeling is mutual. Frank Laino and Robinson have found pay dirt so often, they say, because of the men up front, in the trenches, doing the dirty work.

“I trust them,” the quarterback said.

Essentially, the Tigers have lurked under the radar because of their offensive line’s dominance. Good blocking teams don’t scare opposing coaches or keep them up at night. And Fort Hamilton, Frank Laino admitted, lacks any game-breakers, although he said it has made them stronger as a team – less egos. Plus, the Tigers have reveled in their underdog status.

“We want everybody to talk about everybody else,” Laino said, “and we’ll keep winning.”

So far, the end doesn’t seem anywhere in sight. Fort Hamilton opens with No. 14 Flushing at home Saturday, a game the offensive line should dominate. The group isn’t necessarily the most talented one in recent years, but they have excelled in the system better than any other unit.ii

“We’ve never run the (zone blocking) with this much success,” Laino said. “We’re just blessed with the way they’ve developed.”

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