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BERNALILLO — With a No. 2 seed and coming off a big win in its previous game, the Los Alamos Hilltopper boys soccer team had high hopes heading into Thursday’s Class AAAA semifinal.
But those hopes were dashed quickly by the Albuquerque Academy Chargers.
The Chargers scored a pair of first-half goals and were content to play a stalemate contest with the Hilltoppers the rest of the way, take a 2-0 decision at the State Farm Soccer Complex.
The win advanced the Chargers to this afternoon’s state tournament final against the St. Pius X Sartans, 4-0 winners over fifth-seeded Academy. The loss for the Hilltoppers ends their 2008 campaign at 16 wins, 6 losses.
“We were having a great season, but not getting to the championship is disappointing,” Hilltopper senior captain Mike Leslie said. “For me, every year we’ve gotten to the semis and been knocked out.”
Things were looking rosy for Los Alamos heading into Thursday’s game. Following a sluggish performance in the first game of World Cup pool play last week, Los Alamos crushed Grants 6-1 and appeared to be firing on all cylinders heading in.
But Academy’s Chargers, who along with Los Alamos and St. Pius are near-permanent fixtures in the state AAAA semifinals, allowed but only a few tantalizing whiffs of their goal to the Hilltoppers.
Los Alamos struggled to move the ball past a big and physical Academy back line, which was anchored by senior Mike Lipps. Lipps, from the sweeper spot, powered several long balls clear of his team’s goal, keeping Academy goalkeeper Garrett Nyrgen relatively safe throughout the contest.
The Hilltoppers managed just three shots-on-goal Thursday.
Much of Thursday’s semifinal was played with a strong wind blowing from the northwest which slightly favored the team heading toward the south side of the field. Academy was moving in that direction in the first half and that prevalent wind might have aided Academy’s first goal.
Less than six minutes into the contest, a corner kick from Dereck Thompson curved sharply straight to the back of the Hilltopper goal to give Academy a 1-0 edge.
Hilltopper head coach Evan Gartz couldn’t do much but shake his head at the first Academy goal.
“That first goal, I don’t think I’ll ever see anything like that again in my lifetime,” he said.
While Thompson’s goal would end up being all the Chargers would need to secure the contest, they would strike again about nine minutes later on a pretty header from their leading scorer Darren McAfee.
Lipps, a broad, imposing figure, crushed a direct kick from just beyond the center line to eight yards deep in the penalty box. McAfee went up for it and lined a textbook header inside the far post past Hilltopper goalkeeper Oliver Funsten who had no shot at it.
“That was a beautiful goal,” Gartz said. “We couldn’t do anything about it. McAfee plays very well in the air. We knew that and we tried to mark him.”
The defense actually turned in a good effort Thursday despite the two goals. David Bjorklund and Adam Nekimken both posted solid performances with both forcing several turnovers against Academy’s solid front side.
But Academy was just as good on its side of the field, thwarting the Hilltopper attacks with solid tackling and getting into the Hilltoppers’ passing space.
Along with the two wins in pool play and the big six-goal effort just five days earlier, Los Alamos also felt it had a mental edge entering the semifinal after scoring five times against Nygren and the defense in a 5-3 win during the regular season.
The Chargers (16-7) had in Friday’s championship game the unenviable task of trying to unseat the six-time defending champion Sartans and their offensive juggernaut. Results from that game were unavailable at press time.
Thursday’s contest was the finale in the prep careers of Hilltopper seniors Bjorklund, Leslie, Nekimken, Darrell Beckman, Daniel Dyer, Dion Obermeyer, Austin Prince, Jason Reagor, Benigno Sandoval, Will Schoonover and Jon Thoma.
Leslie, who was instrumental to the team’s success in 2008, said although he would’ve loved to face St. Pius in the final, had a good time making the run to get there.
“This was the best team we’d had in awhile,” he said. “We went undefeated in district, which was great. I just would’ve wanted to finish it off with a good showing in the championship.”