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For the past several seasons, according to Evan Gartz, the Los Alamos Hilltopper boys soccer team has been something of a punching bag for the Rio Rancho Rams.
But heading into today’s game, the Hilltoppers are hoping to deal a couple of haymakers of their own.
With Los Alamos set to open its 2010 season at Rio Rancho, expectations around the team could scarcely be higher for the team to end its 23-year-long drought for a state championship.
Gartz, entering his fourth season as head coach of the Hilltoppers, said there’s no shortage of work to be done before the postseason starts in late October, but there’s also little reason to believe his team won’t get there.
Los Alamos finished as the third-ranked team in Class AAAA according to the first NMSoccer.com coaches poll conducted last week. In the top two spots were a couple of familiar faces, St. Pius X and Albuquerque Academy.
While Gartz said the ranking doesn’t carry a lot of weight one way or the other, especially a preseason ranking, he thinks that poll might get shaken up by the time the playoffs roll around.
“No one’s played yet,” he said. “The way I see it, you look at how many returning starters and how many returning players teams have got. Looking at it that way, it’s come to hold pretty true.”
Looking at it that way, the Hilltoppers are in pretty good shape.
While Los Alamos will likely miss the services of forward Davis Anson, who graduated last season after establishing himself as the top scoring threat on the squad with 17 goals, Los Alamos has all of its potent midfield returning this season, not to mention the team’s anchor, fullback Graham Delano.
“We’re probably the most experienced and we’re probably one of the most talented teams,” Gartz said. “Our goal this year is to go undefeated in (Class) AAAA.”
That could be a tall order, particularly with St. Pius, which has won seven of the last eight state AAAA titles, looming — the two teams play at Sullivan Field Oct. 8.
St. Pius lost several starters to graduation last season, in which it was ranked No. 1 for the state tournament. The Sartans, however, were stunned in the quarterfinal round of the playoffs by upstart Piedra Vista, which the next day gave the Hilltoppers all they could handle in the semifinals.
It’s a rare season, however, when the Sartans have no big guns on their roster. This season is no exception, with Nathaniel Pacheco returning for his senior year. Two years ago, Pacheco was one of the most prolific scorers in Class AAAA, but didn’t play for the Sartans last season.
Nick Miele, who finished second for St. Pius with 28 total points in 2009, is also expected back this season.
2009 was, in many ways, one of the most successful seasons the Hilltoppers had turned in since 1986, the one and only time the program has grabbed that elusive state title.
Los Alamos flirted with the 20-win mark last season, going 18-7 and finishing as the Class AAAA runner-up behind Farmington.
In that state title game, Los Alamos fell behind in the first half to the senior-laden Farmington Scorpions and never recovered. The Scorpions, who won their first ever boys soccer title last year, survived a good push by the Hilltopper offense in the first 15 minutes of the contest, but got their offense going midway through that first half and never relented.
The Hilltoppers will have a rematch with the Scorpions Saturday afternoon in the Four Corners. While Gartz said the team they will play won’t resemble the team that they lost to last season — Farmington lost 13 seniors following the season — he was glad to see his players heading into that contest with a chip on their shoulders.
Because his team is so deep in the midfield, Gartz is going to be switching up his tactics a little bit this season to take advantage of it.
Returning starters David Wyman, Nic Castaño, Chase Havemann and Andy Thoma were all productive on the offensive end last season, with Thoma finishing the 2009 season with 11 goals and a team-leading 14 assists. Wyman finished second among the Hilltoppers last season with 12 goals and was also credited with seven assists.
In the back third, Delano, one of the top defenders in the state, regardless of classification, will return for his senior year.
Delano, a three-year starter for Los Alamos, is the returning the District 2AAAA Player of the Year.
Not only is Delano a stellar defensive performer, his 6-foot, 2-inch frame also makes his an offensive asset, particularly on corner kick opportunities, on which he is often able to get over the rest of the field to use his head.
Behind Delano and the rest of the Hilltopper defense will be first-year starter Lorenzo Venneri.
Venneri, a junior, has no previous prep soccer experience, but has played several years in club soccer leagues.
Gartz said Venneri is the best goalkeeper he has ever seen and should bring stability to a position that has been a shaky one for the Hilltoppers over the last several years.
“We’ve been looking at him since seventh grade,” Gartz said. “He’s fearless between the pipes.”
After today’s game at Rio Rancho — results weren’t available as of press time — and Saturday’s game at Farmington, Los Alamos will make its home debut Sept. 3 against Aztec, one day before the opener of the Louie Cernicek Invitational.
This season, Los Alamos still must prove it can hang with the elite of the state despite the early scouting report that it could be a serious title contender.
“I’m comfortable with that,” Gartz said. “The way we’ve been playing as a team, it’s been so exciting to see. I don’t even think this team knows how good they are yet.”