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2009 Year in Review: Toppers turn in another exciting year in sports

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By Mike Cote

It was a wild year on the court, on the gridiron, on the pitch and on the trail, to say the least.

The Los Alamos Hilltopper teams, which often show a flair for the dramatic, didn’t disappoint in 2009, going down to the wire with opponents in big games time after time.

Nowhere was that more evident this year than in boys basketball. Playing in the toughest district in Class AAAA with one of the brightest stars in the state in 6-foot-11 center Alex Kirk equaled an exciting year. The boys basketball team placed four games in this year’s countdown of the top 10 Hilltopper contests of 2009 — two of them were virtually extensions of the same game and are listed as one — and a few more of their games just missed the cut.

During the calendar year, Los Alamos picked up two state championships, in girls track and field and girls cross country, and made the state championship game in both the boys and girls soccer tournaments.

Events listed in this year’s countdown, as always, were judged by competitiveness, playoff implications and the all-important “gasp” factor. Only events at which a Monitor representative was present were considered for this list.

10. Softball, Los Alamos at Española Valley

April 16

The Hilltoppers and the Española Valley Sundevils have a penchant for going tooth-and-nail against each other in softball and this past spring was no exception.

A year earlier, Los Alamos was crushed at Española Valley in the teams’ regular season doubleheader, being outscored by a combined 19-0, but Los Alamos wasn’t going to go down that easily in 2009.

In the first game of the doubleheader, Los Alamos rallied from a late-inning deficit to take a 7-5 victory, but Española Valley got the better of the Hilltoppers in the nightcap, winning 9-3. Los Alamos would ultimately win the third game of the regular season at home against Española Valley which would help it secure a berth in the state playoffs.

In the opening game this day, Hilltopper catcher Micaela Christensen lined a single to right field in Los Alamos’ final at-bat. The sharp base hit was misplayed and rolled to the fence, clearing the bases and giving the Hilltoppers a 2-run edge.

In the bottom of the seventh, Monika Teter pitched around a lead-off double by Española Valley’s Serena Garcia to help give the Hilltoppers the victory.

9. Boys basketball,  Los Alamos vs.    Artesia

March 11

It looked like it might be a long, cold morning for the Hilltoppers in the quarterfinal round of the state Class AAAA playoffs once again, but a second half comeback made things a little more interesting at The Pit.

Los Alamos fell behind by 18 points in the first half of its playoff game against the Artesia Bulldogs, the same team that knocked it out of the state tournament in the quarterfinal round two years earlier.

But behind a big push by then-junior center Alex Kirk, who scored 13 points in the third quarter, Los Alamos pared Artesia’s big lead down to just seven at one point.

Kirk would finish with a whopping 39 points, not to mention 14 rebounds and 5 blocked shots but it wouldn’t be enough on this day as Dallas Bolleman dropped in 20 points and Sergio Arias had 15 to give the Bulldogs a 69-58 win.

8. Football, Los Alamos at Bernalillo

Oct. 23

It had been a dreary 2009 season heading into District 2AAAA play for the Hilltopper football team.

Yet, with a big win two weeks earlier over the Taos Tigers, the Hilltoppers were still very much in the mix for a state playoff berth when they headed down to Bernalillo to play the Spartans.

The Hilltoppers and Spartans played a classic in 2008 at Sullivan Field with the home team taking a narrow victory. The 2009 version would lack the same offensive fireworks, but would be just as nail-biting.

Los Alamos’ defense, which had an up-and-down showing this season, came up big when it had to, holding a red-hot Bernalillo offense to just 142 total yards and just 3 yards in the second half.

But the Bernalillo defense, spearheaded by linebacker Ivan Luna, was up to the challenge on the other side of the ball, keeping Los Alamos off the scoreboard.

In what was billed going in as the biggest football game ever played in Bernalillo, the Spartans came away with a 14-0 victory which propelled them to their first ever District 2AAAA football title.

Prior to that game, Hilltopper head coach Bob Scott told his team that he would retire following the 2009 season.

7. Swimming, state championship meet

Feb. 21

While a push to knock perennial power Albuquerque Academy off its boys and girls perches was simply not in the cards this day, the Hilltopper swim clubs were looking to make their marks with top-three finishes in both events.

The Hilltopper girls finished just shy of their stated goal, being nipped by just two points from a third-place team finish, the Hilltopper boys played nippee to Albuquerque High School, squeezing out a top-three finish by just four points.

Los Alamos’ boys held off Albuquerque 202-198 to pick up the third-place finish at state, held at Albuquerque Academy’s Natatorium. Both Academy’s boys and girls were runaway winners at the event.

On the girls side, Victoria Maqueda nipped Academy’s Tess Lemon in the 100-yard breaststroke to claim a state championship in that event, while Jennifer Barich-Mooday, who is having an impressive start to the current season, took fourth in the 200 freestyle.

For the Hilltopper boys, Alex Baker was third in the 100 butterfly, Micah Putnam finished fourth in the 200 individual medley and the 200 freestyle relay team of Colton Lake, Misha Skurikhin, Dylan Lake and Putnam finished third in that race.

6. Boys basketball, Los Alamos vs. Capital

Feb. 4 and Feb. 26

The Jaguars and Hilltoppers met four times during the regular season, splitting those four meetings down the middle. While Los Alamos would ultimately get the last laugh, knocking Capital out of the District 2AAAA tournament, it would need a big push in the finale between the two teams.

Capital, which had given Los Alamos fits throughout the season, took a 40-37 lead into the final quarter, but an 18-7 rally by the Hilltoppers in the final quarter gave them a 55-47 victory.

Both teams came out attacking the basket in the fourth quarter, but Capital hurt its own cause by misfiring six times in the quarter from the free throw line. Kirk finished with 21 points and a game-changing steal-and-assist in the final eight minutes, while Corey Clark had 10 and Zach Parks and Michael Helland dropped in seven each.

In the Feb. 4 contest, it was Capital which made the big final quarter comeback, scoring 29 points in the final eight minutes to take a 61-58 lead.

Los Alamos, which would’ve been in good position to take full control of the District 2AAAA race going into the game, held a 44-32 lead after three quarters but Capital forced eight turnovers in the fourth quarter.

Kirk finished with 32 points in that game.

5. Girls soccer, Los Alamos vs. St. Pius X

Nov. 6

To the surprise of no one, Los Alamos, St. Pius, Albuquerque Academy and Volcano Vista were the final four teams standing in the 2009 state AAAA tournament.

While the Chargers would ultimately prevail, topping Los Alamos 3-1 in the state title game and grabbing their second-straight AAAA championship, St. Pius’ Sartans made life more interesting than the Hilltoppers were hoping in the semifinal round.

The two had faced off in the regular season with the Hilltoppers squeaking out a 1-0 victory, but the Sartans matched the Hilltoppers shot-for-shot in the November semifinal. Both teams fired off 10 shots in the contest, with Hilltopper goalkeeper Jenny Tumas, who finished as statistically the No. 1 goalkeeper in the state, having to stop five of those shots.

After the two teams played to a scoreless deadlock in the first half, Kelsey Neal converted a penalty kick when teammate Shannon Blair was tackled in the Sartan penalty box to make the score 1-0. Los Alamos would score an insurance goal just four minutes later with the younger Neal sister, Amy, chasing down a long direct kick from Laura Nelson and going over the top of Sartan goalkeeper Alex Gallegos, herself one of the best backstops in the state in 2009.

4. Wrestling,      District 2AAAA championship

Feb. 14

It all started with a dirty sock filled with sand.

The Hilltopper wrestling team was far less than uptight heading into the district championship tournament, in which it wasn’t expected to do much. Hilltopper 103-pounder Jodi Cull-Host was in a loosey-goosey mood going in, filling dirty gym socks with sand and then trying to pass them off as breakfast burritos.

That day, the Hilltoppers would put together arguably their best performance of the 2008-09 season, qualifying all nine of its competing wrestlers for the following week’s AAAA championship tournament and finishing second in team competition despite being underdogs to both Española Valley — which would win the team championship — and Bernalillo.

But Los Alamos grabbed 119.5 team points, just enough to squeeze out second place against host Bernalillo, which finished with 117 points.

Blaine Lattin picked up the third straight district title of his career at 189 pounds, while Zak Wilde at 160 pounds and Kory Nelson, a late replacement at 130 pounds, also grabbed district championships on the afternoon.

Cull-Host, the prankster, bounced back from an opening round loss on the day, but scored two straight pins, the second coming against her arch-rival, Cristal Ortiz of Capital, to grab third place.

3. Baseball, Moriarty at Los Alamos

May 8-9

The Hilltopper baseball team went into the best-of-3 first-round set of games against the Pintos desperately trying to avoid another opening round playoff letdown.

It would need a big rally in extra-innings in the final game of the set to do so.

Los Alamos left fielder Eli Pulliam’s base hit into right field plated shortstop Jack Russell and pinch-hitter Austin Aslin to give the Hilltoppers a game 3, 8-inning victory over Moriarty and send it to the quarterfinal round of the AAAA tournament.

The two teams split the first two games of the series, with Moriarty taking the opener of the set. Moriarty scored seven runs in the third and fourth innings of game 1, erasing an early 5-1 Los Alamos advantage, to take control of that contest.

Los Alamos blew out Moriarty in the second game of the series, but the third game was nip-and-tuck throughout.

The Pintos looked to be poised for a rally late in game 3, but relief pitcher Lukas Coker, using a good mix of off-speed and breaking pitches, threw an impressive 3-1/3 innings to quell the threat. Coker was on the hook for a loss, however, after giving up a run in the top of the eighth before Pulliam’s game-winning hit, giving Los Alamos an 11-10 victory.

2. Track and field, Class AAAA    championship

May 15-16

The weight of big expectations didn’t seem to slow down the Hilltopper girls track and field team very much at the University of New Mexico Complex.

Los Alamos earned a crushing victory over Albuquerque Academy and St. Pius, picking up a monster total of 120 points to earn a state team title.

Everyone on the team, from senior to freshman, contributed something to the victory, which was the most lopsided of the three-classification meet.

The biggest stunner of the meet may have been the 100 meter event, in which Hilltopper freshman Chase Ealey upset teammate Emily Weeks to grab the state sprint title in AAAA.

Weeks, however, would be the brightest star at the meet, grabbing a win in the 200 meters and a second-place finish behind Rowell’s Chantelle Riddle in the long jump. Weeks amassed 21.5 points, making her the state’s high-point athlete.

Jessica Stokes won the 100 hurdles and Los Alamos won two relay events, including the meet-concluding 1600 relay to cap an impressive victory.

In the boys AAAA meet, Los Alamos started off like gangbusters, winning the 400 relay and taking the 100 meters, courtesy of speedster Jason Reagor.

But the Albuquerque Academy Chargers, led by Curtis Beach, one of the best all-around athletes to come out of New Mexico in some time, won with a team total of 115 points. Los Alamos finished second in team competition with 88 points.

Superstar long-distance runner Gareth Gilna pulled off a rare trifecta in the distance events, winning the 800 meters, 1600 meters and 3200 meters and Austin Wolstein finished second in the discus.

1. Boys basketball, Los Alamos at     Española Valley

Jan. 30

They sure can pack the fans into Edward Medina Gymnasium on the campus of Española Valley High School.

The first meeting between the Hilltoppers and Española Valley’s Sundevils in late January was no exception.

A near-capacity crowd of approximately 3,400 was on-hand to witness the top-ranked Sundevils take on the Hilltoppers, their bitter rivals, but the night would belong to the visitors.

Española Valley jumped out to a 9-point lead in the first half, but that lead slowly shrunk throughout the balance of the half and into the second half.

Putting together one of its best quarters of the season, Los Alamos stymied the explosive Española Valley offense and took a 12-point lead which sent the Sundevils reeling.

But in the fourth quarter Española Valley’s Ryan Salazar gave the Sundevils a spark off the bench, scoring six points including a 3-pointer that tied the game at 52 with just 1:27 to play.

With Los Alamos clinging to a 2-point edge and just 30.1 seconds remaining, Parks turned in the play of the game, intercepting a cross-court pass, getting fouled and draining the second of his two free throws.

The 59-53 win by Los Alamos gave it control of the 2AAAA race, which went down to the wire during the regular season. Española Valley would ultimately win the regular season and district tournament crowns, but Los Alamos would make the Sundevils earn it the hard way.