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It was an eventful year in the world of sports. The mighty Chicago Bears, who flirted with a 16-0 record in the regular season, won the Super Bowl in a rout. Bill Buckner missed a ground ball to help the New York Mets win the World Series.
In Los Alamos, the year’s biggest significance might be the state tournament victory by the Hilltopper boys soccer team, which knocked off Eldorado 2-0 in the finale to grab its one and only state title.
Now, 24 years have passed since that victory by the Hilltoppers, but this year, the team feels confident heading into the state playoffs, which start Saturday at Sullivan Field.
Los Alamos, the No. 5 seed in the Class AAAA state tournament, will take on Los Lunas in the opening round. Game time is 1 p.m.
However confident Los Alamos feels going into the state playoffs, it will have one of the toughest roads to travel to get there. Should it prevail over Los Lunas, Los Alamos will have to face fourth-seeded Albuquerque Academy in the quarterfinals, followed by the mighty St. Pius X Sartans, the tournament’s top seed, in the semifinals to earn its second-straight berth in the state final.
“It’s a gift and a curse, really,” Hilltopper David Stroud said. “We are playing two of the best teams in the state, but we’re coming in with a chip on our shoulder. We’re the best team in the state and we can prove that.”
The Hilltoppers had high expectations heading into the 2010 season, coming off a fantastic run into the state championship game in 2009 before falling to Farmington 3-0. With the bulk of that team back, the Hilltoppers looked poised for a huge season.
But Los Alamos, which had several chances to exert its authority during the season, failed to do that in two separate contests. In mid September, Los Alamos lost a 2-0 lead in less than 10 minutes at home to Academy and ended up losing to the Chargers 3-2 in overtime. About three weeks later, Los Alamos had chances to put some goals in against St. Pius but fell short in those pushes, falling 2-1 to the Sartans at Sullivan Field.
Things aren’t likely to be any easier the second time around against those two Class AAAA heavyweights, but the Hilltoppers aren’t shying away from the challenge.
“I feel like it really doesn’t matter,” Los Alamos midfielder Dominic Lucido said. “You have to play the best teams in the state, we just have to do that a little earlier.”
Before that, however, Los Alamos will need to get past Los Lunas.
Los Lunas’ Tigers are playing their first season in Class AAAA. They had been in Class 5A since 2000.
Los Lunas and Los Alamos played early this season at the Louie Cernicek Memorial Invitational. Los Alamos dominated that semifinal contest, winning 3-0, helped out by a pair of Chase Havemann goals, one late in the first half and one in the second, to earn the win.
Saturday, Los Alamos will have to keep an eye on Levi Allen, the Tigers’ top scorer this season. Allen tallied 15 goals on the 2010 season, three more than Jorge Tarango, who also dished out eight assists.
Los Lunas head coach Eliseo Aguirre said that while his two main scoring threats produced solid seasons, his team will need more than them to be successful in the opening round.
“The main thing is aggressiveness,” Aguirre said. “Not dirty aggressiveness, but winning the 50-50 balls and not being scared…Everybody’s excited because it’s the state playoffs. We didn’t make it in 5A but we made it in 4A. Saying that, everyone knows we have our work cut out for us.”
The Tigers finished the 2010 season with a mark of 10-9, going 6-4 in a tough District 6AAAA, which included Belen, the tournament’s No. 2 seed and which posted the second-best winning percentage in the state (.889) behind only No. 3 Roswell (.900).
Aguirre said his team didn’t close out the season as well as he’d hoped, losing a district contest 2-0 to Valencia and a nondistrict contest 3-2 to West Mesa in the final week.
Los Alamos (13-8), meanwhile, closed out its regular season with a bang, winning six out of seven — its only loss during that time coming against St. Pius — including a pair of big wins against its main District 2AAAA rival, Capital.
In its season finale Oct. 19, Los Alamos topped Capital 3-0, scoring three quick-strike goals in the second half after surviving an early push by the Jaguars, who themselves earned a No. 7 seed in the AAAA tournament. Paul Hemez, Andy Thoma and Alper Unal all scored for Los Alamos, but the showing by the Hilltopper defense was the big difference between the two teams.
“In my opinion, we’re very solid right now,” Los Alamos fullback Zeke Zumbro said. “We’ve gelled this entire year as the back three and sometimes four. We’re very solid going into state…it’s going to be nice to have Graham (Delano) back. There won’t be a lot of attacks in (Saturday’s) game.”
Delano, Los Alamos’ star defender, injured his ankle the game prior to the team’s first meeting with Los Lunas. Since the return of Delano and Mike Leslie, who also missed time this season with an injury, the team’s defense has been difficult to crack.
While Los Alamos has played well throughout the season, now is the time of year when players start to feel the grind of the long season. Most Los Alamos players said they’re feeling strong, but there’s still a long way to go.
“I’ve been tired all year,” Stroud said. “But having watched our team on the field, we’re one of the toughest, most in-shape teams out there.”