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Experience leads LA to 2016-17 season

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Toppers open campaign by hosting Valencia at 7 p.m. Tuesday

By Jose Corral

The last two seasons, the Los Alamos boy's basketball team was enforced by a plethora of young players.

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Those players are now juniors and seniors and they are the leaders of the program.

The Hilltoppers begin their 2016-17 season by hosting Valencia at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Griffith Gym.

"We've been telling them since last summer that it's their program now," said Mike Kluk, who's entering his fourth season as Los Alamos coach. "It's critical that they step up and own it. They're all upperclassmen now and we're starting see a bit more maturity compared to last year."

Every player on the Los Alamos roster this season is either a senior or junior.

One of the experienced pieces that the Hilltoppers will rely on in 2016-17 is 6-foot junior guard Jack Stewart.  

"There's been a lot of potential these past couple seasons and we're just looking to build off of that," Stewart said. "We're all maturing so I think it's going to be good this season."

Kluk said he implemented a new offensive scheme during the offseason. And the team has adapted well to the new offense, according to Kluk.

"We got to run it last summer so they know it a little bit," Kluk said. "It's just a matter know to get the team chemistry with it. It might be a little ugly in the start of the season but it'll get there. It'll give us another weapon to play with."

Stewart believes that the new offense will be effective for the Hilltoppers style of play.

"It looks good," Stewart said about the new offense. "I think it's better for our size and our skill sets." 

Maintaining strong confidence during the early stages of the season will also be key for Los Alamos, as it faces tough match ups in its daunting schedule. After Tuesday's opener, the Hilltoppers will compete in the Belen invitational before hosting St. Pius, Highland and in a span of 13 days.

Then, Los Alamos will travel to play in the Roswell invitational, before starting District 2-5A play on Jan. 17 at home against Del Norte.  

"It's really important that we get some wins early," Kluk said. "This team is built on confidence. And if they lose that confidence, then it could make for a longer year. I just hope we can execute."

Junior guard Antonio Trujillo, who's expected to be one of the top returners for Los Alamos, has been sidelined by a thumb injury. He'll be limited in the first couple weeks of the season but is expected to contribute in the backcourt, according to Kluk.

In the frontcourt, Los Alamos might have its biggest team during the Kluk era. Ivan Balakirev, Troy Hammock, Adam Paulson, Isaac Fason and Will Carter will look to give the Hilltoppers a powerful post presence.

"They're a little bit more bigger and stronger," Kluk said. "They just have to step up and own it. If they don't, it's going to be a long season. But I can see it right now that there's a little more of that 'we can do this' attitude."

Stewart said the struggles of the past couple seasons, including losing seasons in the past two years, have helped quicken the learning curve for this year's Hilltoppers.

"We've struggled and we've definitely grown closer together as a team because of the struggles that we faced," Stewart said. "I think it'll just makes a stronger team."

Despite having a tough schedule and being in one of the Class 5A's most competitive districts, the transition from young talent to mature players will be key in the Hilltoppers quest to ending a four-year state tournament drought.

"We don't have to spend huge amounts of time trying to cover stuff that they already know," Kluk said. "That's where you want to be when you get your stuff established. They just internalize things better now that they're older."