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Boys soccer: LA gets throttled by St. Pius X Tuesday

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By Mike Cote

ALBUQUERQUE — One of the most prolific scorers in the state and one of its best teams showed the Los Alamos Hilltopper boys soccer squad why they have those titles Tuesday.

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St. Pius X, the most successful program in the state, had little trouble dispatching the upset-minded Hilltoppers Tuesday afternoon at Sartan Field.

Behind its outstanding frontman Kaelan Brennan, who dominated play in the first half, St. Pius scored early and often, cruising to a 5-1 nondistrict victory.

The Hilltoppers simply couldn’t hang with the Sartans’ powerful midfield, which dominated the 50-50 balls and picked numerous Hilltopper pockets throughout in a commanding performance.

Los Alamos head coach Evan Gartz said he was hoping his team would’ve given St. Pius a little more run for its money, but it got a first-hand chance to see what it will have to do should the two teams meet in the 2009 postseason.

“They took us entirely out of our game,” Gartz said. “This was a good learning process. We know exactly what to work on and what to look for.”

Heading into Tuesday’s game, Los Alamos was hoping for a good showing against St. Pius. A victory over the Sartans would’ve given the Hilltoppers a fair argument for a No. 1 seed in the AAAA playoffs. The Sartans (10-3) were tied with Albuquerque Academy atop the most recent NMSoccer.com Class AAAA poll.

But Brennan, who had tallied 17 goals during the 2009 regular season heading into Tuesday’s game, wasted little time in quashing the Hilltoppers’ hopes, tallying four scores in the first half.

Brennan had goals in the 5th, 28th, 31st and 34th minutes and just missed on a 13th minute chance that clipped the crossbar and bounced straight down toward Hilltopper goalkeeper Ryan Dunham.

Dunham stayed busy through the first half, earning nine saves, three of those coming in about a 45-second span, including Brennan’s near-miss.

Tuesday’s game was a rescheduled affair. The two teams had to postpone the meeting when rains Sept. 17 made St. Pius’ field unplayable.

Los Alamos’ lone goal of the contest came when, on one of its few offensive chances in the first half, forward Davis Anson was pushed from behind just inside the 18-yard box. At the 21-minute mark, Andy Thoma came in to take the ensuing penalty kick, which he hit inside the left post with St. Pius goalkeeper Tim Lange diving to the right side.

The Hilltoppers managed just 8 shots Tuesday, while the Sartans fired off 22 shots for the ballgame.

Los Alamos and St. Pius are regulars on each other’s schedule during the season.

The two teams played as District 2AAAA rivals from 2000-2004, with the Hilltoppers winning just one of their 10 regular season meetings during that span.

St. Pius’ midfield disrupted the Hilltoppers passing game at nearly every turn — Gartz said his team’s passing wasn’t as crisp as he was hoping for, either.

Sartans head coach Mike Strati said he’s been waiting for his midfield to improve all season and was hopeful that they were on their way toward doing so.

“We did a good job,” Strati said. “The midfield is starting to figure out how to play together. When our midfield is clicking, that really lets our offense take advantage of our opportunities.”

Coming into the 2009 season, the Sartans had won seven straight AAAA state titles, a pair of them under Strati. Since 1981, the first season boys soccer was recognized by the New Mexico Activities Association, St. Pius has won 14 state championships, 12 of those coming under legendary coach Jorge Tristani.

The final goal of Tuesday’s game came in the 74th minute, with Xavier Sanchez breaking free right up the middle of the field against a spent Hilltopper defense.

The Hilltoppers played with the Sartans better in the second half, for the most part turning back the big runs that highlighted the Sartans’ first half. Oliver Funsten, who replaced Dunham after the break, had two saves in the second half.

Tuesday’s win could well have cemented a No. 1 tournament seed for St. Pius, which beat Albuquerque Academy, the other AAAA team that could make an argument for the top seed, 1-0 Sept. 30.

Barring an upset by Capital, Los Alamos should go on to win its second straight 2AAAA title and earn a top-four spot in the state bracket. The start of state tournament play is less than two weeks away and Los Alamos wants to be mentally prepared for its opener.

“We have to (get past this loss),” Gartz said. “We have Bernalillo Saturday, then La Cueva right after that. La Cueva beat St. Pius. We only have a week to get ready for that.”