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Basketball: LA boys, girls will face arch-rivals

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By Mike Cote

Both the Los Alamos Hilltopper boys and girls basketball teams will have a shot at grabbing the reins in the District 2AAAA race, but they both have tall orders to fill in pulling it off.

Los Alamos’ basketball teams will take on their counterparts from Española Valley this weekend. The girls game is scheduled for Saturday in the valley, while the boys game will be at what’s almost guaranteed to be a packed Griffith Gymnasium Friday.

In both of those district races, Los Alamos and Española Valley are projected to duke it out for this season’s championships. Española Valley is the defending champion in both genders and both teams are among Class AAAA’s elite this season.

The most recent statewide polls, released by the New Mexico High School Coaches Association, the Sundevil boys are second in the Class AAAA rankings — where they’ve been all season — and the Sundevil girls are third. Both teams are ahead of Los Alamos, which adds even more fuel to a fire that rarely needs to be stoked.

“This is the greatest rivalry in New Mexico,” said Hilltopper center Alex Kirk. “Every year, it’s the same thing. Both teams are going to go hard.”

The Sundevil boys (18-1) are playing perhaps the best basketball of any team in the state right now. Case in point: two big Sundevil road wins over the past weekend against Clovis and Hobbs, historically two of the state’s elite prep programs.

Los Alamos head coach Alan Kirk said Española Valley, which hasn’t always played tough nondistrict schedules, more than rectified that problem this season by scheduling opponents such as Gallup, Manzano, Rio Rancho and Hope Christian.

The Sundevils have historically had strong guard play and such is the case again this season as they feature Rodney Coles, one of the top point guards in the state. This season, however, the Sundevils also have some height down low with four players listed at 6-foot-4 or above. Luis Alvarado, Española Valley’s forward, is a returning senior who had a solid 2008-09 season.

Los Alamos (14-5 overall, 2-0 in 2AAAA) heads into Friday night’s game having won three of its last four contests including Tuesday’s 67-35 win over Bernalillo. It is 6-0 at home this season.

The two teams met under similar circumstances in late January 2009. Española Valley, the top-ranked team in the state at the time, was upset at home by Los Alamos 59-53. Los Alamos had to battle back from a 9-point deficit in the first half and survive a late Sundevil rally to win.

Friday, the Hilltoppers are expecting a knock-down, drag-out battle once again.

“They’re going to try to up-tempo it,” Alex Kirk said. “Bring it on…It’ll be exciting. This place will be packed. We want as many L.A. fans here as we can get.”

Saturday, Los Alamos’ girls will be facing a similar challenge.

The Sundevils (16-3 overall, 1-0 in 2AAAA) are among the hottest teams in the state right now, having won seven games in a row and nine of their last 10.

Española Valley guard Nisa Duran, a senior, was named the district’s Player of the Year following last season. Española Valley head coach Ron Drake said Duran is having a stellar 2009-10, averaging approximately 18 points per game.

Drake, in just three seasons with Española Valley, has turned a struggling program completely around. In 2006-07, the Sundevils failed to win a game. Now, under Drake, the Sundevils could be poised to make a serious title run.

For the Hilltopper girls, they were handed their first loss in nearly a month Monday night at home. The Hilltoppers had an 11-point lead in the fourth quarter Monday against St. Pius X, but St. Pius closed the game on a 14-0 run to win 40-37.

Prior to that loss, Los Alamos had won 7 straight contests, with 5 of those wins coming against other Class AAAA teams.

Los Alamos head coach Tarah Logan said there was a funny vibe around the team heading into Monday’s game and was hoping that wouldn’t be present Saturday.

“It never felt like we got into a groove,” she said. “But this team is phenomenally good at learning from its mistakes. They’ll be some emotion, which is a good thing.”

Los Alamos (12-7 overall, 2-0 in 2AAAA) is currently a half-game ahead of Española Valley in the district standings, as Española Valley’s scheduled game Jan. 19 against Capital was postponed.