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While the Los Alamos Hilltopper boys basketball team appears it will have to do some retooling, doing so around a 6-foot-11 Division-I player should make that goal easier to achieve.
Tuesday, the Hilltoppers will open their 2009-10 season when they host the Kirtland Central Broncos. That game is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Griffith Gymnasium.
The Hilltoppers will have plenty of eyeballs on them this season after their premier player, Alex Kirk, signed his National Letter of Intent to play next year for the University of New Mexico. Statewide interest in Kirk and the Hilltoppers should reach a fevered pitch come late January when Los Alamos opens play in District 2, arguably the toughest district in Class AAAA.
Kirk, the Hilltoppers’ center, was among the top scorers and rebounders in New Mexico during his junior year. He had been on the radar of several Division-I college program since his sophomore season and ended months of speculation earlier this month when he signed to become a Lobo.
For now, Kirk said, the only thing on his mind is getting the Hilltoppers to the title round of the AAAA playoffs.
That will take some doing, however.
While Los Alamos features seven upperclassmen, most of its roster spots are filled by reserves or newcomers to the varsity team.
One of the Hilltoppers’ top returners, senior Zach Parks, said the way the preseason workouts have gone so far, that shouldn’t be a huge issue.
“We’re coming along quickly,” Parks said. “Hopefully, we’ll be ready by Tuesday, but we still have a lot of work to put in.”
Parks was part of a three-guard rotation employed by the Hilltoppers last season, along with Jack Russell and Doug Hardy. Both Hardy and Russell are gone, however, and Parks will be asked to take over as the team’s full-time point guard.
In the backcourt, Parks — as well as the other five guards listed on the roster — will likely face lots of ball pressure throughout the season. For the last two seasons, that has been the predominant defensive strategy for teams taking on Los Alamos in an effort to prevent the ball from getting down low to Kirk, whom few teams have been able to defend with any degree of success.
Kirk, who was recently named to the Class AAAA All-State preseason team, published by the New Mexico High School Coaches Association, was a sought-after prep player not just because of his height, but because of his shooting range and his ability to hit free throws — it’s not uncommon for Kirk to make 20-plus trips to the foul line in one night — so not allowing the ball to get to him is often opposing teams’ best defensive option.
It’s a challenge Parks said he’s ready for.
“That’s the role you take as a senior,” he said. “You get more responsibility as a senior. Last year, I had a more defensive role, this year, it’s as point guard.”
In 2008-09, Los Alamos posted 20 wins, but dropped a state tournament quarterfinal game to the Artesia Bulldogs.
Alan Kirk, who is heading into his seventh season as head coach of the Hilltoppers, said the team’s early schedule could work out favorably for his team with five of its first six games at home, which should help his younger players gain some confidence.
“This is the most number of home games we’ve had since I’ve been coach,” Kirk said.
Its game with Belen game Dec. 8 was a late reschedule, as the Hilltoppers were originally supposed to travel for that contest. Their only road contest until mid-December is a meeting with St. Michael’s Dec. 3.
While Los Alamos is cutting its teeth throughout the early portion of what could be a tough nondistrict schedule — it will face no less than six teams that appeared in the 2008-09 postseason, including Class AAA runner-up St. Michael’s, before the district season — the more experienced members of the team will be asked to grab the reins.
“I think for the most part, we have seniors that can step up,” coach Kirk said. “Once the kids get up to speed, they’ll be able to fly through it.”
In AAAA this season, defending state champion Roswell, which knocked off Artesia in the state title game in March, could well be the team to beat heading into the 2000-10 season. Roswell lost just one starter to graduation and has a roster loaded with seniors.
Returning for the Hilltoppers this season is senior Austin Wolstein, who has had two solid season coming off the bench, and senior reserve guard Wade Archuleta. Both Wolstein and Archuleta just joined the team two weeks ago after the end of the football season.
Kirk Webber, at 6-foot-4, is also a senior joining the team following the football season.
Brandon Owens is the lone junior on the squad and is returning from last season’s team.
Senior Garrett Newell is new this season, as are sophomores Nick Baker, Austin Aslin and Thomas Russell.