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Boys soccer: LA likes its chances in AAAA

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By Mike Cote

To say that the Los Alamos Hilltopper boys soccer team is looking forward to the 2009 season would be something of an understatement.

Following a big season in 2008, the Hilltoppers like their chances to make a push to a state title in 2009. They feel good about this season despite some key losses to graduation after last season.

“I’m excited,” Los Alamos head coach Evan Gartz said. “I’ve known we’d improve. Every year we get better and better. This year is no exception.”

Los Alamos’ 2009 season opens up, as it usually does, at the Louie Cernicek Invitational tournament. The tournament gets underway Friday and continues through Saturday.

The Hilltoppers will take on the Clovis Wildcats in the opening round of the tournament, a team they know little about heading in.

The 2009 Louie Cernicek tournament, now in its 13th season, is very similar to the 2008 version. Along with Clovis, teams from the Roswell and Farmington area, as well as Rio Rancho and Moriarty will take part.

The Los Alamos-Clovis first round game is scheduled for 10 a.m. Friday morning at Sullivan Field. The championship game will be held at Sullivan Field at 4:30 p.m. Saturday.

Rio Rancho, which is on the opposite side of the tournament bracket this season, won the tournament in 2008, taking a big 3-0 victory over the Hilltoppers.

The Cernicek bracket is one of the toughest in the state and the Hilltoppers rarely taste victory in their home tournament. The last time the Hilltoppers won the tournament championship was in 2004.

Heading into the start of the season, the Hilltoppers are very optimistic about their defense, which Gartz feels will be one of the best units in Class AAAA.

The top returner in the back for Los Alamos is junior Graham Delano, who not only helped anchor a sturdy defense in 2008, but scored the winning goal in overtime of Los Alamos’ playoff game against the Belen Eagles, a goal which put Los Alamos into the state semifinals.

Delano is one of five juniors returning this season that earned some quality minutes on varsity last season. However, returners Matthew Leslie and David Wyman are currently working through injuries they sustained in the summer and may be out for much of the first month.

Gartz said that with plenty of experience returning, the learning curve around his squad shouldn’t be terribly dramatic.

“We have 14 players coming back who went to state with us,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of guys coming back, so it made the selection process a lot easier...Just three of them are green guys who have never played varsity before.”

The biggest question mark for the Hilltoppers heading into the season will be who might step up to replace the team’s primary offensive weapon, Jason Reagor.

Reagor was the show-stopper of the program for two seasons, including a big senior season in 2008 when he scored 15 goals and handed out 17 assists.

But Gartz said there’s little reason to worry about finding someone to fill in at the offensive end. He believes he has as many as six solid scoring threats on the roster and if they can all produce, the Hilltoppers should be just fine on the offensive end.

“We don’t have that superstar, but we’re really deep, we’re really strong,” he said. “I’m really excited for this year.”

Senior Daniel Rodriguez and Davis Anson came up big for the Hilltoppers in the 2008 playoffs, combining for a pair of goals and three assists in a big win over Grants and could be factors in any Los Alamos offensive success.

Midfielder Andy Thoma played well in 2008 for Los Alamos and returns for his junior season, while junior midfielder Nic Castaño also got to see playing time last season.

The Hilltoppers finished 16-6 in 2008, advancing to the AAAA state semifinal round before being knocked out by Albuquerque Academy 2-0. It was the fourth straight season that the Hilltoppers advanced to the semifinals but were beaten before making the championship game.

Los Alamos’ last boys soccer title came in 1986.

The Hilltoppers will open the 2009 season with four straight home contests. Following the Cernicek tournament, they will take on St. Michael’s at home Sept. 8 before hitting the road. Their first road contest will be against the powerful Rio Rancho Rams in the first round of the Albuquerque Academy Invitational Sept. 10.

Los Alamos is scheduled to meet both Academy and seven-time defending Class AAAA champion St. Pius X during the regular season, with both of those games scheduled for the road — Sept. 15 and Sept. 17.

The balance of power in Class AAAA isn’t likely to be tipped by anyone in 2009, although Roswell — which Los Alamos will get to scout this weekend but would not potentially play until the final round — features Oscar Vela, one of the top scoring threats in the state, regardless of classification.

Farmington, a potential second-round opponent for Los Alamos this weekend, has virtually all of its players back from last season and could be a Class AAAA spoiler this season as well.