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Boys basketball: Toppers meet Panthers in Poe Corn 1st round

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By Mike Cote

While it won’t have to be concerned with Elks, the Los Alamos boys varsity basketball team may have to watch out for aliens.Los Alamos will play in its second consecutive tournament this week. The Poe Corn Invitational starts Thursday, co-hosted by Roswell and Goddard High Schools.The tournament has been striving to become more of a tournament for Class AAAA competition, and seven of the eight teams are AAAA New Mexico schools. The only interloper is Catalina, a team from Tucson, Ariz.The Hilltoppers start the tournament at 6 p.m. Thursday when it takes on a familiar foe, the Piedra Vista Panthers. That game will be played at Goddard.The two teams met Dec. 7 as part of a very successful two-day swing through the Four Corners area for the Hilltoppers. In the first of a two-game set, the Hilltoppers knocked off the Panthers 70-58. They would go on to beat Farmington the following day 42-30.Those two wins sparked a 5-game victory streak for Los Alamos, which, following a knock-down, drag-out loss to Pojoaque, won its most recent contest over a pretty good Socorro team in the Ben Lujan Tournament third-place game, 77-60.Los Alamos head coach Alan Kirk said he’s hoping to meet up with one, or, if he’s lucky, both of the Roswell schools. However, to get to the championship game on the opposite side of the bracket, someone will have to make it through Capital’s Jaguars.“I'd like to play Roswell, another AAAA school,” he said. “It's a little different. A little more of a challenge. If we get by Roswell, I’d love to see Goddard. We’re going to play Capital (during district). The reason we went south is to avoid playing district teams too much.”Piedra Vista had a decent showing at its most recent outing, advancing in the Jaguar Invitational and eventually getting to the third-place game.Kirk said the Panthers have a couple of good players that they will have to be wary of.In the Dec. 7 game, Kyler Garrison, a 6-foot-1 guard, scored 26 points for the Panthers. Kirk also said the Panthers have a good spot-shooting guard in Michael Suarez, never got on track in the teams’ previous meeting.“Suarez is a good 3-point shooter, but he didn’t have a good game against us,” Kirk said. “We’re looking for him to play a little better.”Against Piedra Vista, Los Alamos hit 19 field goals, 6 from behind the circle, and connected on 14 of 16 chances from the foul line.Ben Allen, who is averaging 11.3 points per game, third on the team, had one of his best outings of the season, dropping in 21 points, while Alex Kirk, who is leading Los Alamos in scoring this season with 21.3 points per contest, had 23 points.Through 10 games this season, Ben and Nik Allen are both averaging 5.7 assists per game and have nearly identical averages in steals, field goal percentage and free throw percentage.Alan Trujillo (4.1 ppg) had one of his better outings of the season against Piedra Vista as well, knocking in 8 points and Michael Helland (3.0 ppg) added 7 more.Kirk said he’s excited to see what his team can do at this tournament, especially after some good practices in preparation.“The kids worked hard,” Kirk said of the winter vacation workouts. “We worked on our execution a little bit. We had extra work on shooting. We’ll see if we can’t go down there and have a good showing.”The ’Toppers have been fighting some viruses spreading around the team — there was a case of strep throat working its way around some of the players last week.Capital, which Los Alamos couldn’t see before the final round at Poe Corn, if at all, has put up some big scoring numbers and has held its opponents down in scoring pretty well.One of the more interesting teams at the tournament is Goddard. While Goddard sports just a 5-4 record and has lost four of five going into Poe Corn, it has so far played a brutal nondistrict schedule. The Rockets’ four losses have come at the hands of Española Valley, Hobbs, Alamogordo and Clovis.Roswell, for its part, is 7-3 on the season.Tucson Catalina brings a 9-9 record into the tournament.