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The end of the season, as virtually any coach will tell you, is when you want to have your team peaking.
That is the strategy the Los Alamos Hilltopper boys soccer team is employing as the end of the 2012 season nears, and that team may be right on schedule. And with a mammoth-sized game this week, the Hilltoppers will be looking for any advantage they can get.
Los Alamos, in its final tune-up game Saturday afternoon for what is likely going to be a war Tuesday night in Santa Fe, got two second half goals to drop the Piedra Vista Panthers. Rohun Iyer headed in a corner kick in the 53rd minute and Cooper Christensen tacked on an insurance goal in the 70th minute as Los Alamos blanked Piedra Vista 2-0 at Sullivan Field.
Saturday’s victory over Piedra Vista, a Class 4A team from District 1, was also Senior Day at Sullivan Field. A gaggle of Hilltopper seniors were making their final regular season appearance in front of their home crowd, among them Nick Thoma, who scored the team’s first goal on the new Sullivan Field turf in 2011.
Against Piedra Vista, Los Alamos wanted to make sure everything was in working order so it was ready to play Capital Tuesday night. Capital, which currently holds the District 2-4A lead, topped Los Alamos 1-0 Oct. 6 and can clinch its second straight district title with a win at home.
But the Hilltoppers feel good about their chances for a win after dropping Santa Fe and Piedra Vista last week.
“We’re in a good mood,” Iyer said. “The last time we played Capital, we weren’t at the top of our game. Our intensity was not there and we weren’t winning the 50-50 balls. Obviously it showed.”
The Panthers (3-13-1) have struggled to post victories this season but had a solid game plan going into their game against the Hilltoppers. The Panthers started out using an offside trap on the Hilltoppers that was effective for a good portion of the opening half.
Meanwhile, Piedra Vista was able to counterattack and make some decent runs early on.
Both the offensive and defensive effectiveness, however, dried up relatively quickly as Los Alamos made adjustments about 15 minutes in. From there on out, it was all Hilltoppers.
The Hilltoppers outshot the Panthers 10-3 in the first half — the Panthers got off just one shot after the 10-minute mark — and had several near-misses. Iyer blasted a shot in the 22nd minute that ricocheted off Panther goalkeeper Brandon Adair right back to him. Iyer followed up with another point-blank shot that Adair smothered.
Adair had 6 saves in the opening half and was the key reason the teams were scoreless at the break. He also held on to a shot from Christensen headed for the far post on a 1-on-1 chance in the 12th minute.
Los Alamos head coach Evan Gartz said he’s tickled to see his team having to gut out close, low-scoring games at this point, as those are the exact kinds of games the Hilltoppers can expect throughout the playoffs, which start in a little less than two weeks.
“Late in the season, it should only take one goal to win,” said Gartz, who guided Los Alamos to a state title in 2010. “Right now, we’re closing out games and we kept a clean sheet today. That’s huge for us.”
Los Alamos goalkeeper Chris Parker had 3 saves Saturday, including punching a booming direct kick from over the crossbar from Frankie Villalobos in the first half.
Parker, who has a 1.51 goals-against average this season, also took a close-range shot from Piedra Vista’s Joseph Denney right into his side. Parker grimaced following the shot, but stayed in the game.
Iyer’s goal came off a corner kick from midfielder Henry Steinkamp, who has been the team’s motor throughout the season but has kicked his game into high gear for the last three weeks.
Steinkamp, who scored both goals last Tuesday at Santa Fe, likes what he’s seeing out of the Hilltoppers (12-7).
“Right now, we all believe we can win,” he said. “It’s a matter of whether we show up and play.”
Following Iyer’s goal, Christensen made a run down the middle of the field, performed a nifty spin move to get Piedra Vista’s Beau Velarde — who had a strong game Saturday — out of position, and hit a short shot that struck Velarde in the foot and skipped past Adair into the net.
Piedra Vista, which seemed spent at about the midway point of the second half, could not muster any kind of comeback attempt late.
Despite the Panthers’ struggles this season, Gartz said it was a solid win for the Hilltoppers on Senior Day.
“They’re always a solid program,” Gartz said of the Panthers, who knocked the Hilltoppers out of the postseason early last year in a game that went to penalty kicks. “Tactically, their coach had them in the right spots. Athletically, we had the edge, but tactically, they’re very good. We wanted to come out today, earn a win, and I think we did.”