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While the skill position players get the lion’s share of the credit in football, as the old saying goes, “the war is won in the trenches.”
So score a victory for the Los Alamos Hilltoppers Friday night.
Los Alamos’ undersized offensive and defensive lines were dominant at Sullivan Field against Pojoaque, which featured some big bodies upfront. But Los Alamos, using its speed advantage to full effect, hit the Elks hard and fast, creating holes on offense and creating havoc on defense.
The Hilltoppers scored a pair of defensive touchdowns in the first half, one on a strip-and-go by Cory Geyer late in the first quarter and the other on a pick-six by Arnoldo Ortiz after Pojoaque quarterback Ryan Koller was hammered by Chandler Lauritzen coming off the right side.
The Elks made a valiant attempt to right their ship in the second half, but by that time it was far too late as the Hilltoppers cruised to a 55-14 win at Sullivan Field.
“Basically, our strategy is not size,” said Los Alamos senior lineman John Gibson. “We never had size. This year, our line focused on agility and speed. What we do isn’t anything fancy....When we work our technique, we’re unstoppable.”
Gibson, who plays guard on offense and tackle on defense, came through big on both sides, helping the Hilltoppers roll up 349 yards total offense despite running just 30 offensive plays.
Los Alamos’ new quarterback, Brice Van Etten, was solid throughout. In the opening half, Van Etten threw a 3-yard touchdown pass – to tight end Geyer immediately after an apparent 60-yard touchdown throw to Jake Downs was overturned, being ruled that Downs went out of bounds at the 3. He also ran for a pair of touchdowns, including a 32-yard option that he bounced out to the right sideline and went untouched down to about the 4 before diving in.
The big blow of the game, however, came in the first quarter when Geyer wrenched the ball from Pojoaque’s Mario Urquidi as he tried to plow his way through the Hilltopper linebacking layer. Geyer took the ball 46 yards untouched to score and put Los Alamos ahead by a commanding 27-0.
Geyer looked well at ease running toward the end zone on the play, but he said he was anything but.
“I was honestly so scared they were going to tackle me from behind,” said Geyer. “Everyone told me they didn’t even know I had the ball until I was 30 yards downfield.”
Los Alamos was about as fired up for Friday’s game as it could’ve been, not only because it had its 2012 opener at home, but because it had a score to settle with the Elks.
Pojoaque blasted Los Alamos in the 2011 opener at Jacona Field, winning 59-22, a game which Los Alamos limped into without several starters, most notably Ortiz.
The word repeated in the Hilltopper locker room this week was “retribution.”
“That sums up the night,” Geyer said. “That was definitely our fuel today.”
While “retribution” has the connotation that the vengeance is deserved on a moral basis, it seemed to work wonder for the Hilltoppers Friday.
A fully-healthy Ortiz needed just four carries to rack up 69 yards and a pair of touchdown runs, one from 24 yards and one from 38 yards out. Sam Ortiz went 62 yards for a score in the second half, replacing Arnoldo Ortiz in the fullback spot.
Van Etten, whom Los Alamos head coach Garett Williams said did everything he could during the preseason to prepare himself to take over the Hilltopper offense, finished as the team’s leading rusher, going for 79 yards on 11 carries, as well as completing 4 of 9 attempts for 115 yards.
“He did a great job,” Williams said of Van Etten, making the first varsity start of his career. “Last week, he had a great scrimmage and tonight he played like a junior quarterback should.”
Koller, Van Etten’s counterpart, showed some flashes of some of the good things he can do Friday, but the Hilltopper defense harassed him all night and he would never find his rhythm.
Koller was sacked four times in the game, by Gibson, by a combination of Clint Adams and Diego Madrid, by Sam Ortiz and by Jonathan Schueler, for a total of 28 yards in losses.
“Our defense played a tremendous game,” Williams said. “But the effort they played with, the intensity they played with, made all the difference. The kids came out and played with the confidence they ended with last year. I think it showed.”
When Koller did have time, however, he did complete four passes of over 20 yards, including a 57-yard catch-and-run by David Neuman-Roper in the third quarter and a 60-yarder by Isaac Martinez in the fourth quarter.
In the first half, however, the Elks were limited to 95 yards total offense.
Los Alamos will still have to iron out some issues – along with a couple of gaps in coverage in the secondary, it committed several penalties and had some missed assignments, particularly in the second half – but the team’s confidence should be growing heading into this week’s game against a stiff opponent in Farmington, a Class 4A franchise that is tough at home.
“We definitely feel good, but we’re not going to glory in it,” Gibson said. “We realize Pojoaque is a stepping stone...but we made a statement. We can hold up with the best of them.”