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There are worse ways to end the season than the way the Los Alamos Hilltopper boys cross country squad ended 2007.
Few thought the 2007 state Class AAAA title meet was going to be little more than a coronation run for the Albuquerque Academy Chargers, but the Hilltoppers stunned the Chargers at that meet, grabbing four top 10 team finishes.
Little did anyone know, however, Los Alamos was just getting warmed up.
In the postseason, Los Alamos and Academy finished deadlocked for the regional championship, grabbing an invitation to the Nike Team Nationals, where the squad placed second in the country among prep teams.
Oddly enough, however, that finish didn’t seem to afford the Hilltoppers a ton of respect heading into the 2008 season. In the just-released preseason coaches poll, the Hilltoppers were rated second behind Academy’s Chargers among New Mexico’s big schools.
That, however, doesn’t seem to be a problem for the Hilltoppers.
“On paper, we lost more than Academy did,” Hilltopper co-head coach Rob Hipwood said. “They already had more depth than we did. Academy, it’s fair to say, is the favorite this year. We want the guys to feel that way…we don’t want them to get in the habit of comparing themselves to last year.”
That’s not to say, however, the Hilltoppers can’t have that same type of success in 2008.
Los Alamos opens its 2008 regular season Saturday when it takes part in the University of New Mexico Invitational. That race will take place at the North Course on the UNM campus in Albuquerque.
Los Alamos has some key returners off the 2007 team and plenty of experience with seven seniors vying for varsity time.
The Hilltoppers will bring back two of their top three runners off last season’s team, senior Gareth Gilna and junior Kyle Pittman. Pittman and Gilna were among the top six finishers at the state meet last season, both finishing right on the heels of fourth-place finisher Allen Pittman.
Both are expected, if they remain healthy, to be at the front of the pack at the 2008 state championship meet.
“We’re very fortunate,” Hipwood said. “They’re a huge part of this team. You’re fortunate when you have one kid like that and we have arguably the two top runners in this part of the country…they epitomize the work ethic for the rest of the guys.”
Behind Gilna and Pittman, Kevin Hemphill will return for his senior season. Hemphill was a top-20 finisher at state in 2007.
Also returning from the state title squad is senior Andrew Vierra, who was 21st at the state meet.
Several other runners will try to step into the shoes of graduates Tom Bowidowicz and Tom Witherell, who together sealed Los Alamos’ win at the state meet.
Among those will be seniors Nat Gustafson, Ben Havemann, Austin Jacobson and Eli Pulliam. Pulliam, however, is currently trying to recover from injury and may be out for some time.
Ian Pulliam, a sophomore, will also be looked at as a possible top seven runner for the Hilltoppers.
Los Alamos has looked very good in the preseason, although it will get a stiff test at UNM where many of the top-tier prep squads are expected, among those Academy, Cibola, Gallup and Rio Rancho.
The Hilltoppers feel ready for the challenge this and their top-heavy early-season schedule will bring.
“I was really impressed with how we did,” Gustafson said, talking about a preseason scrimmage at Albuquerque Aug. 23. “Gareth and Kyle had solid performances and our pack was really close. We were closer to the leaders than we thought.”
Los Alamos was the unofficial winner at that meet, which included Rio Rancho, Sandia and the new AAAA school on Albuquerque’s west side, Volcano Vista.
Gilna and Pittman were first and second in the preseason race, with Gustafson, Hemphill, Vierra, Jacobson and Havemann taking the five-through-nine slots individually.
Following Saturday’s meet, Los Alamos will travel to Denver’s suburbs for the regional Liberty Bell Invitational, then two weeks after that take part in the Academy Invitational, which several top Albuquerque-area schools often attend.
Unless an upstart emerges — an unlikely prospect, although St. Pius X is the most likely candidate — the AAAA title will almost assuredly come down once again to Academy and Los Alamos.
The Chargers have some notable returners to their squad as well, such as junior Pat Zacharias and Anthony Lauriello. Curtis Beach, arguably the best all-around athlete in the state, is also expected to participate on the Chargers’ cross country squad.
Los Alamos would love to upset the Chargers as it did last season and in 2003, the only times since 2000 the Chargers have been beaten at the state level. However, no one on Los Alamos squad is likely to panic if Academy is the front-runner early on.
“Last year at UNM, Academy beat us pretty badly,” Gustafson said. “But we closed that up. We’ll test ourselves against Academy, Gallup and the other big schools. I don’t think we have a specific goal other than to run hard and try to beat them.”