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ALBUQUERQUE — One down, two to go.
After surviving a wild first half and an equalizing goal midway through the second half, the Los Alamos Hilltoppers scored late in regulation to knock off one of the most dangerous teams in the state to advance to the semifinal round of the state Class AAAA playoffs.
Los Alamos might have had a flashback to mid-September following the tying goal in the 58th minute by the Albuquerque Academy Chargers, but a 73rd minute goal from Cooper Christensen gave the Hilltoppers the victory.
“We had a free kick and we knew we had a good chance,” Christensen said after the contest. “It was one of those moments where the ball dishes out and I just did what I’ve been doing since I was a little kid. It’s just one of those moments where everything stops.”
Following a Los Alamos direct kick, the ball was hit to the corner, then toward the goal mouth where it landed right next to Christensen. Christensen was all alone with Academy goalkeeper Nicholas Moeser and pushed a shot right by him as he took a step toward Christensen to cut off his angle.
The fifth-seeded Hilltoppers will now advance to take on the top seed in the tournament, the St. Pius X Sartans. The Sartans had a tough contest against one of the dark horses in the tournament, eighth-seeded Chaparral, winning that contest in overtime, 2-1.
It will be the second playoff game in a row for the Hilltoppers against one of the most storied programs in state history as well as the second game in a row the Hilltoppers will play against a team they played, and lost to, during the regular season.
“We can beat them,” Los Alamos head coach Evan Gartz said. “They’re a good team, they’re fast and they come at you hard...but if we possess the ball and play up-tempo, we can beat them.”
The Chargers came out strong and fast in the first half of Thursday’s contest, getting off five shots in the first 12 minutes of the game, three of them on goal and one that was just off the left post.
But Los Alamos, which dominated the game between the two teams during the regular season until the last two minutes, when Academy came back to score two quick goals and force overtime, held on through the initial Charger offensive onslaught.
With the game still scoreless early in the second half, Los Alamos forward Paul Hemez broke straight through the teeth of the Academy defense — which had done a solid job of disrupting the Hilltopper attack in the first half — and picked up a short diagonal pass from Andy Thoma.
Hemez crushed a shot toward Moeser which bounced off his hands and straight back, then tapped the ball in to give the Hilltoppers a 1-0 edge.
Later in the half, however, the Chargers would score on a mishandled ball by the normally sure-handed Los Alamos goalkeeper Lorenzo Venneri. On a routine bouncing ball that bounced over the Hilltopper back line, Venneri reached up to pluck it, but the ball slipped through his grasp and straight to Academy’s Chase Snyder. Snyder simply knocked the ball into the goal before Venneri could recover.
Christensen said he was looking forward to a rematch with the Sartans, who have won seven of the last eight state championships before making an early exit in 2009.
“They’re a good team,” Christensen said. “They always have one of the best teams, but this year, we’ve got a lot of returning seniors and we can give Pius a run for their money.”
If we put our hearts into it, we can pull it off.”