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Getting there was two-thirds of the fun.
Unlike the hosts of most tournaments, the Los Alamos Hilltopper boys soccer team feels fortunate when it makes it to the finale of its home tournament.
After a year absence, Los Alamos did just that in this weekend’s Louie Cernicek Memorial Tournament, squeezing by Goddard and Farmington before running into Class AAAAA contender Rio Rancho in Saturday’s final at Sullivan Field.
Despite keeping the contest close for the first half, Rio Rancho cracked the Los Alamos defense several times in the second half and took the title game 3-0.
But to make it to the finals in arguably the most competitive tournament played in the northern half of the state wasn’t anything the Hilltoppers were sneezing at.
“I’m proud of how we played,” Hilltopper midfielder Jon Thoma said after the final. “We won two of three games here. That’s good enough for me. We got to the championship and we played hard. You can’t ask for more than playing hard the whole time.”
The tournament win by Rio Rancho’s Rams was nothing short of a two-day clinic. The Rams outscored their three tournament opponents Moriarty, Piedra Vista and Los Alamos by a combined 18-0. The Rams also swept the Offensive and Defensive Most Valuable Players of the tournament, with Cristobal Duran and Patrick Sanchez taking those honors.
“We got swarmed in the midfield,” Hilltopper captain Jason Reagor, who was named to the All-Tournament team, said following the title game. “They passed well, they’re quick. They’re a better team right now.”
In four games this season, the Rams have yet to be scored upon.
Rio Rancho held a 1-0 lead at the break, that coming on a lightning-quick Duran score in the fourth minute.
The big highlight of the game for the Rams, however, was Kenny McAvoy’s heel pass to set up Julian Roberts’ goal in the 52nd minute. Roberts one-touch goal put Rio Rancho up 2-0.
Javier Gomez would make a hard solo run through the teeth of the Hilltopper defense to score the punctuation mark goal in the 68th minute, but Gomez punctuated the goal a little too much and was red carded for taunting immediately after the score.
Rio Rancho outshot Los Alamos only 15-10, but put six shots on goal to Los Alamos’ two.
“They looked so polished,” Los Alamos head coach Evan Gartz said of the Rams. “Everything was spot-on. They played beautiful soccer.”
The Hilltoppers’ three games in the tournament were the opening three games of the 2008 season for the squad, which sported nine newcomers, including five sophomores, on its tournament roster.
Throughout the tournament, however, the youngsters by-and-large turned in quality minutes.
“We’ve got great development,” Gartz said. “We’ll be fine. By the middle or by the end of the season we’ll be a great team.”
Los Alamos’ semifinal opponent, Farmington, much like Los Alamos, boasts several solid young players on its squad, more than a few of them freshmen.
The Scorpions, a Class AAAA final four team in 2007, have been running hot and cold this early season, giving the St. Pius X Sartans all they could handle in their season opener, then falling to A-AAA Rehoboth before heading into Friday’s play.
After its impressive first round win over Class AAAAA Clovis, a 3-0 decision, Farmington came out fast in the semifinals against the Hilltoppers. The Scorpions scored the first goal of the contest in just the fourth minute, with Niko Lewis banging a roller through Los Alamos’ goalkeeper Oliver Funsten’s hands, giving the Scorps a 1-0 lead.
Other than a couple of quick shots to open the second half, the opening goal would be about all the Scorpions would muster Friday night. The rest of the contest would belong to the Hilltoppers.
Los Alamos would come back with five unanswered goals to take the semifinal contest and advance to the final, its second appearance in the tournament title game in two years.
Reagor scored twice in the first half. In the 13th minute, blowing through a quick Farmington back line, splitting a pair of defenders, then juking Scorpion goalkeeper Chase Esmiol for his first goal.
Just before halftime, Reagor sent a corner kick directly to the center of the goal, which Esmiol accidentally punched into his own net.
Reagor, who scored Los Alamos’ only goal in the opener on a penalty kick after teammate Davis Anson was fouled just inside the penalty box, was also credited with an assist on The Hilltoppers’ fourth goal of the contest.
In the 56th minute, Reagor sent another spot-on corner kick right to Austin Prince’s head. Prince lined the ball straight past backup goalkeeper Brycen Campbell.
Will Schoonover would convert a penalty kick early in the second half to put the Hilltoppers up 3-1 and Anson would chip in a quick indirect kick from Michael Leslie late to finish off the scoring.
Schoonover and Prince were also All-Tournament selections for the Hilltoppers.
Los Alamos finished the contest with 23 shots while Farmington would get off just six, most of those coming in the very early stages of each half.
Esmiol finished with seven saves in goal, while Campbell saved two others. Funsten stopped two shots – Anson filled in between the posts briefly in the first half but didn’t have to stop any shots.
“Farmington’s always a tough rival,” Thoma said. “We had a tough game last year. This (time), we had better opportunities and we put them away.”
In its first round contest against Goddard veteran Rocket goalkeeper Ryne Lamm had to scramble to keep his team in it as long as he did. Lamm, who finished with 10 saves in the contest, did his finest work in the 31st minute, lunging all-out to punch a top-shelf line drive from Hilltopper forward Daniel Rodriguez just over the crossbar, preserving a scoreless tie.
Los Alamos finished Friday’s first round contest with 20 shots. Goddard threatened to score a few times in the second half, finishing with seven shots, five of those coming after halftime.
Funsten had to stop two shots in each half to preserve the shutout.
The Hilltoppers and the Rockets met in the pool play round of the playoffs last season, with the Los Alamos thumping Goddard 7-1.
Farmington topped Roswell 3-1 to take third place in the contest.
The Hilltoppers’ general plan going into the tournament was to play quality minutes, win or lose and let the chips fall where they may. Seeing what was working and what needed to be worked on was far more important than taking the team title, which is what the Hilltoppers got.
“Our defense is going to be solid,” Reagor said. “We’re so deep there. We can sub people out and keep everyone fresh. Our offense will be solid eventually…they’re phenomenal players. We’ll put it together, no problem.”
12th Annual Louie Cernicek Memorial Invitational
Baren Filpot, Clovis
Nick Chaharlang, Piedra Vista
CJ Klepac, Farmington
Reyes Gutierrez, Farmington
Andres Bustos, Roswell
Steven Colocchio, Roswell
Jason Reagor, Los Alamos
Will Schoonover, Los Alamos
Austin Prince, Los Alamos
Patrick Sanchez, Rio Rancho
Cristobal Duran, Rio Rancho
Julian Roberts, Rio Rancho
Offensive Most Valuable Player - Cristobal Duran, Rio Rancho
Defensive Most Valuable Player - Patrick Sanchez, Rio Rancho