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RIO RANCHO — Fifth verse, same as the first.
For the fifth time in a row, the Los Alamos Hilltopper volleyball team succumbed to the St. Pius X Sartans in the Class 4A playoffs. The Sartans trailed the Hilltoppers only a couple of times early in the first two sets of Friday night’s Class 4A semifinal and started to pull away from the Hilltoppers midway through the second set.
Los Alamos’ season ended one match short of the finals for the third time in a row, with the Hilltoppers falling 25-21, 25-16, 25-15.
St. Pius and Los Alamos, which play similar styles upfront, sustained its attacks better than did Los Alamos and kept Los Alamos on the defensive for most of the night.
The Class 4A state tournament concluded today at the Santa Ana Star Center. Results from Saturday’s championship match between St. Pius and Piedra Vista, which outlasted defending champion Artesia in a dogfight of a semifinal Friday, were unavailable at press time.
At No. 9, Los Alamos was the lowest-seeded team to make the semifinals despite a fair number of upsets throughout pool play and the opening round of the tournament, including St. Pius, which was upset by Artesia in pool play Thursday.
“We made the most of it starting from the No. 9 seed,” Los Alamos head coach Garry Maskaly said. “It was a rough draw on the left side of the bracket. Pius is a good team...but it’s been great getting to the semifinals three years in a row.”
Earlier Friday, the Hilltoppers had to come from behind against the No. 7 seed Roswell in the quarterfinal round to get to the semifinals.
Los Alamos, much as it did a day earlier, got off to a slow start, but had time to bounce back against Roswell.
The Coyotes, one of the tallest teams in 4A, put up a good block to start the quarterfinal match, but Los Alamos saw a weakness upfront and took advantage of it.
“I was learning to hit between their hands because they weren’t closing their blocks, said Hilltopper freshman Brianna Montaño. “They were leaving it open and they weren’t pressing up against the net. When they did that I knew it wasn’t going to come down on our side.”
Montaño, participating in the first state tournament of her young career, had five spike kills in the decisive third set, leading Los Alamos to a 19-25, 26-24, 25-20, 25-19 win.
Los Alamos looked shaky in the opening set, falling behind by as many as 24-15 before scraping together a mini-rally that, if it didn’t get the Hilltoppers back in the contest, at least took a little wind out of the sails of Roswell.
In that match, middle blocker Gali Sanchez had three spike kills and a block kill and looked like she might give the Hilltoppers fits throughout the contest.
However, she would only end up with three more spike kills for the remainder of the contest.
Montaño, who finished with 16 spike kills, tying her with Kirk for the best performance of the match, connected on two spike attempts late in the second set to start herself getting into a groove.
Roswell led as late as 21-20 in the second set with Ali Castro, the Coyotes libero and one of their best servers, at the service line, but Kirk, Montaño and Sam Fenner came up with spike kills late as Los Alamos tied the match at a set apiece.
It was in the third set, however, where the momentum really swung in favor of the Hilltoppers. The set was error-filled to start — with Los Alamos up 10-8, the teams combined to score only four points that were not due to the other team’s miscues — but Montaño, with two big spike kills, one coming off the Roswell block, gave Los Alamos a little breathing room at 13-9.
Roswell, from that point on in the match, struggled to string any kind of offense together. Danielle Ortiz helped facilitate that problem for the Coyotes, making several key pickups behind the Los Alamos front line.
However, Los Alamos’ momentum in knocking off Roswell didn’t carry over as well as it might have hoped into facing the Sartans.
The Sartans, who also matched up well height-wise with the Hilltoppers (17-9), were able to both get good swings against Los Alamos’ front line and get a consistent block up, particularly against Claire Stewart in the middle and Montaño on the outside. The Sartans libero, Mercedes Pacheco, came up big on defense to limit the damage of Los Alamos’ big hitters.
Los Alamos led 7-6 in the first set before St. Pius strung together four points to take a lead it would never relinquish. Los Alamos had a 5-4 advantage in the second set before St. Pius took the lead for good. Los Alamos never led in the third set.
The Hilltoppers’ chances weren’t helped in the second set when veteran setter Savanah Romero had to leave the contest with an apparent sprained wrist. She did not return after suffering her injury.
Kirk, Los Alamos’ leading hitter throughout the season, finished with nine spike kills against St. Pius to end her career. Fenner finished with eight spike kills and Ortiz, who will be remembered as one of the best defensive players in the history of the program, earned 20 digs.
It was a tearful end to the career of Romero, as well, following her injury, and was the final match in the career of veteran defensive specialist Morgan Schake.