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Anthony Brunetti and LIU Post ready for Division II Tournament

LIU Post running back Anthony Brunetti looks for

LIU Post running back Anthony Brunetti looks for room during the homecoming game against Kutztown on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2011. Credit: Lee S. Weissman

The ball is snapped and it's a handoff. Anthony Brunetti instinctively reads the blocks, looks for a hole and shoots through it. A hard collision soon follows.

Each yard must be earned the hard way, and he loves the contact. That bruising, punishing style suits him well, and it's helped lead the LIU Post football team to its first NCAA Division II Tournament appearance since 2005.

The sixth-seeded Pioneers will visit No. 3 Virginia State University at noon Saturday.

Brunetti's success likely comes as little surprise to those who watched the 2009 Thorp Award winner perform at Holy Trinity High School.

Oh, except for one small thing. Brunetti no longer breaks tackles, he's the one making them now as an inside linebacker for the Pioneers.

Yes, the Anthony Brunetti who turned heads and rewrote record books as a running back in high school and scored 10 touchdowns as a freshman at Post no longer runs the ball in college. Now his primary objective is to ensure that the opponents don't do much of that, either.

"I know how a running back thinks,'' said Brunetti, a red-shirt senior who ran for 2,451 yards as a high school senior. "I know that running back is probably thinking what I would and seeing the hole open up just as I am. So I meet him there.''

It's happened quite often. Brunetti, a 5-9, 238-pound thumper, leads Post with 111 tackles, four interceptions and three forced fumbles. Not bad for a guy who switched from tailback only this season and hadn't played defense since high school.

A severe case of turf toe caused him to miss all but two games last year. Entering this season, coach Bryan Collins said, "We thought we could help reduce some of the wear and tear on Anthony's foot if we put him on defense.''

He quickly adjusted and flourished, much like the Pioneers, who went from a sub-.500 record last season and captured the Northeast-10 championship last Saturday. Post returned to the NE-10 last year after leaving the conference in 2007.

Steven Laurino -- who this week was named conference MVP -- threw five touchdown passes and ran for another score as the Pioneers topped American International, 58-25, for the NE-10 title. That victory helped Post earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Health, improved offensive line play and increased familiarity with opponents, Collins said, were the components of the quick turnaround.

Now the Pioneers (8-3) will face Virginia State (9-2), which features a high-powered offense. The Pioneers, of course, insist they aren't worried. After all, the Trojans will be facing a high-powered offense, too.

Collins said his team is comparable to the 2005 group that reached the NCAA quarterfinals. "They're similar overall and especially in the fact that back then we had Rob Blount, who was a great dual-threat quarterback, just like Laurino is now,'' he said.

And that, perhaps, is an X-factor. Laurino, slowed by shoulder and hamstring injuries last season, has erupted this year and sparked an offense averaging 34.9 points per game. He has thrown for 3,305 yards and 28 touchdowns and run for a team-high 602 yards and 18 scores.

He is complemented by a trio of talented receivers, each of whom has caught more than 50 passes: Shane Hubbard (966 yards and eight touchdowns), Kamron Palmer (10 touchdown receptions) and Sean Binckes (625 yards, five touchdowns).

"This is exciting for us,'' Laurino said. "We weren't even expected to make the playoffs and we won a conference championship.''

But the Pioneers do aspire for more. And to accomplish that, the defense will have to contain Virginia State's rushing attack. The Trojans have four capable runners, including halfback Kavon Bellamy (10 rushing TDs) and quarterback Tarian Ayres, who has thrown for 14 TDs and run for six more.

"We've played some of our best defense in recent weeks, so I think we've settled in there,'' Collins said, adding that his team won't be flustered. "We've dealt with adversity and had to respond several times this season.''

Collins said Virginia State runs an offense similar to Post's, and he believes the Pioneers are well-prepared. Still, they must execute, and much of the onus will fall on their defensive front seven. That includes linebackers Brunetti and Brandon Cheney and defensive linemen David Sumter (9½ sacks) and Dan Belfiore.

"When I came in as a freshman, Coach promised us that we'd win something during our time here,'' Brunetti said. "It took me five years here, but we finally won something. And we want more. We're ready to play.''

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