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Boys soccer: LA takes fifth at Cernicek Invite

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By Mike Cote

The drought will continue for at least one more year.

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It took only one round to ensure the Los Alamos Hilltopper boys soccer team won’t win its own tournament, the Louie Cernicek Memorial Invitational, in the 2009 season. The Hilltoppers were dropped from the championship side of the bracket with an opening round loss to the Clovis Wildcats Friday morning.

Los Alamos, which won its final two games after the initial loss, finished fifth in the tournament, hasn’t won the Louie Cernicek Invitational since 2004 and missed even advancing to the tournament’s title game for the second time in three seasons.

Season after season, the tournament is among the most competitive in the state, which is much of the reason the Hilltoppers don’t win very often.

 “The first game, that was just frustrating,” Hilltopper forward Daniel Rodriguez said. “We’re not supposed to let that happen, but we’re going to start building and we’re going to be a lot better.”

The tournament was won by the Rio Rancho Rams. The Rams outlasted the Clovis Wildcats in a closely-contested finale Saturday night, 1-0.

The Rams successfully defended their 2008 tournament victory, in which they knocked off the Hilltoppers in the championship contest.

Following its first-round loss, Los Alamos came back to top the Goddard Rockets 3-0, then win a wild contest in Saturday’s fifth-place game against the Piedra Vista Panthers, 4-3, a game that was delayed for nearly 90 minutes in the first half due to lightning strikes.

Like in the loss to Clovis, Los Alamos was up two goals at one point but surrendered that lead to the Panthers before Graham Delano came out of a pile-up around the Panther goal to punch in the game-winner at the 70-minute mark. The Hilltoppers didn’t let the Panthers make much of a late push, preserving the victory.

“That was awesome,” said Delano, who also had a solid tournament in the middle of Los Alamos’ backfield. “It would’ve been a bummer to give up the game on a (penalty kick). That goal was pretty cool.”

Piedra Vista fullback Jesse Wood converted a penalty kick in the 64th minute after teammate Graham Hoffmann went down in the Los Alamos penalty box, tying the score at 3-3.

Andy Thoma, a junior had a monster tournament offensively for the Hilltoppers, picking up a goal and an assist in each game.

On the other side of the field, the Hilltoppers’ defense gave up seven goals in three games, but Hilltopper head coach Evan Gartz said that wasn’t the worst thing that could’ve happened this weekend.

“This tournament exploited our weaknesses that we didn’t see in practice,” Gartz said. “That first loss was a blessing in disguise and the improvement from the first game to the second game was great.”

Against Clovis, the Hilltoppers grabbed two quick goals and led 2-0 early in the first half.

“They jumped on us pretty quick,” Clovis head coach Greg Trujillo said. “We didn’t know what to expect, but we settled down in the first half, got a couple of scores and got back into the game.”

Despite the early deficit, Clovis regained its composure quickly, tying the score in the 28th minute before a late first half goal by Rodriguez, who broke through the Clovis defense to ricochet a shot off goalkeeper Alan Candelaria, giving Los Alamos a 3-2 lead at the break.

“We struggled with our defensive sets,” Trujillo said. “We kept our composure...but our guys stuck with it.”

That would be the last hurrah for the Hilltoppers in the opening round, however. Despite being outshot 7-6 in the second half, the Wildcats controlled the ball and the tempo for the bulk of the second half, picking up the equalizer in the 53rd minute.

With only about a minute remaining in the contest, Wildcat Gerardo Jimenez floated a cross from the left side of the field to teammate Jesus Madrid, crashing toward the goal from the right wing. Madrid caught the ball off his head and past Hilltopper goalkeeper Ryan Dunham for the go-ahead score.

With just seconds remaining in the contest, Los Alamos was awarded a direct kick about 25 yards from the Clovis goal. The kick bounced around near the goal mouth for several agonizing seconds. The whistle blew to end the game with neither team in clear control of the ball — most field officials in that circumstance let play continue until the defense has established ball control or the scoring threat has otherwise completely subsided.

In the first half, Los Alamos looked to be on the verge of blowing the game wide open. Following a third minute goal by Thoma and a 10th minute goal by Rodriguez off a Thoma corner kick, Los Alamos set itself up with some other good looks in the 10th, 13th and 25th minutes.

Jimenez scored in the 15th minute to cut the Los Alamos edge in half, then assisted Austin Schaap on a 28th minute goal to tie the score.

For the contest, Los Alamos outshot Clovis 18-11. Oliver Funsten had two first-half saves and Dunham finished with two saves in the second half. Candelaria earned seven saves in goal for the Wildcats.

“Their goals were our mistakes,” Gartz said. “We were trying a couple of different formations...and (Jimenez), we had trouble containing. We sucked in too far in the middle and that gave them opportunities.”

In Friday’s nightcap against Goddard, Thoma, Paul Hemez and Nicholas Castaño scored goals for the Hilltoppers. Castaño’s goal came off a direct kick from Christian Hjelvik, while Thoma assisted Hemez on his score.

Goddard didn’t get much going offensively, getting off only seven shots in the contest.

Against Piedra Vista, the Hilltoppers got on the board first in the 19th minute, with senior Davis Anson scoring off a pass from the left wing by Neil Gupta. Anson hit a quick 1-touch tapper from just 3 yards out to put Los Alamos up 1-0.

It didn’t take long for the Panthers to answer, however. Less than a minute later, Panther sophomore Shane Woodson made a flying run in from the right side and hit a liner over Funsten’s head to knot the score.

Immediately after the goal, the game was called by lightning. Per New Mexico Activities Association regulations, new this year, lightning strikes automatically mean a 30-minute delay in the action. The game didn’t resume for almost an hour-and-a-half.

Following goals by Thoma and Rodriguez, Piedra Vista scored twice in the second half before Delano’s game-winner.

Delano said afterward the effort to come back and win two following the initial loss was something to build on.

“We grew as a team,” he said. “We rebounded from our mistakes coming off that first loss. That’s the main thing we got.”

Third-place game

While Roswell has been saddled as something of a one-trick pony the last two seasons, the Coyotes might be ready to break that perception.

Following an opening-round win and a knock-down, drag-out battle with Rio Rancho in the second round, the Coyotes won in impressive fashion over the much-improved Farmington Scorpions 3-1 Saturday.

Roswell’s Oscar Vela, the premier scoring threat in Class AAAA since his freshman season, scored three times in the second half. Vela, a junior, scored his three goals in a 14-minute span to lead Roswell to victory.

Farmington, which was underclassman-laden in 2008, got a 56th-minute goal from CJ Klepac. Farmington did a good job of containing the ever-dangerous Vela in the opening half but Vela’s ball-hawking instincts paid off well in the second half.

Farmington had few good chances in either half to crack a stout Roswell defense.

Championship game

Rio Rancho picked up its second win of the season over Clovis, making a 49th-minute penalty kick stand up en route to a 1-0 victory.

The Rams and the Wildcats took turns moving the ball between the penalty boxes to no avail for much of the game — neither team was able to manage more than a handful of good scoring looks — but the Rams capitalized on a takedown in the penalty box by Candelaria. Sam Herbst of Rio Rancho drilled the penalty kick past the Wildcats’ relief goalkeeper, as Candelaria was tagged with a yellow card on the sequence.

The two teams met a week earlier at Rio Rancho, with the Rams (4-0) earning a solid 3-0 victory.

Rio Rancho, one of the premier boys soccer schools in the state, will be Los Alamos’ first round opponent at the Albuquerque Academy Invitational Sept. 10.