Boys soccer: LA holds off Rio Rancho to earn win in opener

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By Mike Cote

RIO RANCHO – Through 50 minutes of play, it looked like the Los Alamos Hilltopper boys soccer team was going to roll to a big victory in its season opener Thursday.


But the seasoned Rio Rancho Rams’ squad, which had been largely silent up to that point, started making some noise.

The Hilltoppers put up a two-goal lead early in the second half against the Rams, a very good Class 5A team, but the Rams came back quickly to score a pair of goals and send the contest into overtime.

After two scoreless overtime periods, Los Alamos held off Rio Rancho in a shootout, getting two big stops by goalkeeper Lorenzo Venneri in the Rams’ first two penalty kick attempts, to earn a season-opening 3-2 win.

Despite picking up the win the hard way Thursday, it was a solid victory for Los Alamos (1-0) against a team it had previously struggled against in several recent meetings.

“We feel really good,” Hilltopper forward Paul Hemez said. “They’re a great team but we came out on top.”

Hemez, who scored the first goal of the game for Los Alamos, also made some good runs straight toward the goal mouth during the overtime periods, although the team didn’t convert on some good chances.

But the play of the game, although the Hilltoppers probably didn’t realize it at the time, was made by Venneri, the first-year junior goalkeeper who had never played in a prep soccer game prior to Thursday.

Venneri, whom Los Alamos head coach Evan Gartz had been really high on in the preseason, denied Rio Rancho striker Sam Horbsts on a penalty kick chance in the first half. In the 35th minute with Los Alamos holding a 1-0 edge, the Hilltopper defense was whistled for an iffy takedown in the penalty box, but Venneri got both hands on Horbst’s ensuing kick to preserve the shutout to that point.

It wouldn’t be the last time in the game that Venneri would stop Horbst cold, again knocking his shootout attempt away to give the Hilltoppers the upper hand and eventually the win.

“You don’t have time to think,” Venneri said when he’s staring down a PK shooter. “You just have to be in the place where he’s shooting. You can help it along a little, but I got lucky (Thursday).”

But Gartz disagreed that Venneri’s three stops – he blocked Lucas Seligman’s attempt one shot later, that coming immediately after Hilltopper David Wyman’s PK attempt clanged off the right post – were simply a happy turn of fate.

“He’s amazing,” Gartz said. “He’s so fearless, he’s athletic and he’s got a quick first step. He can read (the shot) so well and his athleticism does the rest.”

It was the second overtime game the two teams had played in a row. In 2009, the Hilltoppers and Rams played stalemate contest through regulation, but the Rams scored on the only overtime opportunity they had to win 1-0 in the first round of the Albuquerque Academy Invitational.

In the first half Thursday, Los Alamos outshot Rio Rancho 6-3, with Rio Rancho not getting a shot off until the 21-minute mark. In the second half, however, Rio Rancho managed to get eight shots off, four of them on goal.

Brandon Sharprock scored the equalizer with about 10 minutes left in regulation, receiving a well-place centering pass from Horbst for a quick shot from inside the box.

To grab the lead, Hemez blew through the teeth of the Rio Rancho defense to corral a pass from Wyman and made goalkeeper Bryan Morales bite on a quick move toward the goal before rolling a shot right by him.

Los Alamos kept control of the game heading into the second half, with Andy Thoma scoring his first goal of the season off an assist from Chase Havemann. Thoma also got loose deep in the middle of the Rams’ defense to score and put Los Alamos ahead 2-0.

After grabbing the big lead, however, Los Alamos got careless with its passing, which, up to that point, had been spot-on.

“We felt really confident being up by two goals,” Hemez said. “That’s when we kind of lost it…with a two-goal lead we didn’t expect them to bounce back.”

Los Alamos got its composure back heading into the overtime periods, outshooting Rio Rancho 3-1 following the end of regulation.

In the shootout, Thoma, Nic Castaño, Havemann and Graham Delano all converted, while Rio Rancho connected on just two of four tries to earn the win.