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Among the many festivities going on during Homecoming Week 2013 was a mini-class reunion for the Class of 1973.
The senior year of 1972-1973 was a memorable one for the Los Alamos Hilltopper football team, which enjoyed one of the best years in program history. To share some memories of that year, several members of that team got together prior to the Hilltoppers’ homecoming game at the Dixie Girl restaurant.
It was a good turnout at the get-together, which included players and even head coach Glen Howl and several of the team’s assistants.
In 1972, the Hilltoppers went undefeated in the regular season, won the District 1-4A championship and advanced to the state semifinals before getting nipped by Mayfield in Las Cruces on one of the final plays of regulation.
They finished with a record of 10-1 and a rare district title, playing in one of the most competitive big school districts in the state.
While that season was one filled with highlights, the team’s success wasn’t an accident.
“It was the attitude the coach built in,” said Hector ‘Tito’ Hinojosa, the star fullback on the 1972 team who still lives in Los Alamos. “He would tell us, ‘teams might be bigger than you, they might be faster than you, but nobody will try harder than you.’”
Perhaps the biggest highlight of the season was the Hilltoppers’ victory over Farmington.
That year, Los Alamos scored the first victory in school history over the Farmington Scorpions. It was the district opener for the Hilltoppers that coming Oct. 13 and the Hilltoppers held on against the Scorpions to win 21-19.
“Beating that team at home, that was gigantic,” said offensive lineman Mike Lebby. “We got over that hump, finally.”
Lebby was in town on homecoming weekend partially to attend the reunion and partially to visit with this year’s model of the Hilltoppers. Lebby and Los Alamos legend Walt Arnold – who actually graduated in 1980 but dropped by the reunion, which was open to anyone who played or was around Los Alamos football for the decade of the 1970s, and even that relatively minor restriction wasn’t even a little bit enforced – met with the 2013 team prior to their game against Albuquerque Academy.
Lebby, inspired by Howl and his experience at Los Alamos, went on to a successful career as a prep head coach and administrator in Texas.
Lebby’s son, Jeff, played college football in Oklahoma before becoming an assistant at Baylor University. Jeff procured an autographed photo of now NFL quarterback Robert Griffin III, who spent his college career at Baylor, and Mike was there to present it to the Hilltoppers.
Lebby said he didn’t take the easy football path by any means – Texas is notorious for rabid fans of high school football and coaches that aren’t winning often find “For Sale” signs on their front lawn they didn’t put there or get to hear about their lack of coaching ability from angry community members – but that was OK with him.
“I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world,” he said. “Coaching high school football in Texas, the pressure was there, but the community felt it was important. There was a high priority put on winning games in Texas.”
Lebby was on the coaching staff of the 1985 Texas state championship team at Sweetwater and coached against current Hilltopper head coach Garett Williams’ dad during his prep career.
The success of the 1972 team was no accident. According to Mike Ryan, a member of the senior-heavy team, it was one of the first years the Hilltoppers ran a coordinated preseason conditioning program in the summer.
Howl, who wasn’t terribly older than his players, having graduated from Eastern New Mexico University in 1965, said the team would run “The Gauntlet,” a grueling jog starting from Sullivan Field and going down and back to the county’s ice rink, to get them in shape.
“We were at a high level of conditioning,” Howl said. “We weren’t very big, but we were able to out-condition the other teams.”
Hinojosa said several other tactics were used, including a visualization technique called “lights out.”
At the time, visualization methods and their use for sports was only beginning to be understood, but Hinojosa said it was a regular practice for the coaches to turn out all the lights in the locker room and have each player run through their plays and their assignments in their minds prior to hitting the field.
It wasn’t unusual for Hinojosa to carry the ball upwards of 25 times per game.
He said doing everything he could to prepare for each contest was essential.
“We kept the football,” he said. “We held possession as long as we could so we didn’t give the other teams the chance to counter us.”
Hinojosa caught the attention of ENMU and played there for one year after graduating in 1973, but he said football in college “wasn’t any fun anymore,” and he didn’t play after that first year.
Offensively, Los Alamos relied heavily on option, running out of a wing-T formation and variations off that.
On defense, Howl employed an “Oklahoma 5-front” at the line of scrimmage, while the defensive backs were mostly in man coverage.
Howl said Lebby and junior Dave Bradshaw, his defensive down linemen, were essential to the Hilltoppers’ success on defense, as they often both required double-teams to be blocked, freeing up his linebacking corps to jump into rushing lanes.
Another big reason for the team’s success, Lebby said, was that there were no ego problems whatsoever.
“We were a bunch of guys who were committed to being winners,” he said. “It was the coaches who let us do that.’
The big game of the regular season was the Farmington contest, played in front of a sellout crowd at Sullivan Field.
Heading into the game, the Scorpions were ranked No. 5 and the Hilltoppers No. 6 in the state according to the Albuquerque Journal.
The Scorpions were undefeated and had only allowed three points defensively all season.
But it took Los Alamos just one quarter to end that streak with Hinojosa scoring to cap a 61-yard drive following a Paul Valigura interception. Hinojosa carried the ball seven times on the 8-play drive.
The two teams were tied at 7 at halftime, but Los Alamos scored twice more in the third quarter to go up 21-13.
Perhaps the biggest play of the game, however, was made by linebacker Wayne Klatt. Klatt, a junior, stopped Farmington quarterback Jerry Racheff at the 1-yard line on a 2-point attempt with less than five minutes remaining to preserve the Hilltoppers’ 21-19 lead.
Farmington scored immediately following a 10-minute delay when a Sullivan Field light tower was turned off, possibly by a Farmington fan. Racheff went 30 yards on the next play to pull the Scorpions within two points, setting up the crucial conversion attempt.
Despite being seven weeks into the season, that win was a big turning point for Los Alamos.
“We wanted it more,” Hinojosa said. “We felt like we were a team of destiny that year.”
Los Alamos would go on from that game to drop district opponents Gallup, Albuquerque Academy and Santa Fe to set up the state semifinal game against Mayfield.
With the Hilltoppers holding a late 3-0 lead, Mayfield quarterback Bill Hamilton found running back James Garner on a swing pass coming out of the backfield. Garner went 72 yards, breaking two tackles in the process, to score with under four minutes remaining in the contest.
The lone points for the Hilltoppers were again set up by a Valigura interception in the second quarter.
But Mayfield’s defense keyed in on Hinojosa throughout the contest and held Los Alamos to just 102 yards on the ground.
While that loss, particularly the endgame, stung for a long time for the members of the team, the 1972 squad is still considered one of the greatest in Los Alamos High School history.
It’s a season Howl said he’ll never forget.
“Being in Los Alamos was the highlight of my career,” Howl said. “Coaching in Los Alamos was a gift. I could hardly believe they were paying me to do this.”
Howl, who now lives in Portales, said he was proud of the team he coached in 1972 and continues to be proud of them today. “You can tell of their success today, how good of people they are,” Howl said.