Football: Hilltoppers open their ’09 season at home Friday

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By Mike Cote

While the numbers around the Los Alamos Hilltopper football team are reasonably steady heading into this season, that is hardly the case for some of its nearby neighbors.

Los Alamos, which opens its 2009 season Friday at home against old rival St. Michael’s, will suit up approximately 35 players for its home dates this season and will travel with around 32 players.

While the Hilltoppers will send out roughly the same number of players as last season, some programs are running about as light as they could be running. Just down the road at Española Valley, only about 25 players have been regularly attending practice for new head coach Bill Moon. Numbers have also dropped at Capital, the 2007 District 2AAAA champion.

Among the most surprising places that are having issues with turnout this season are Farmington and Kirtland Central, two programs that historically have been among the most successful in the northern part of the state. Participation has dropped so dramatically that rumors have circulated that both schools may even cancel their 2009 junior varsity seasons due to lack of numbers.

One team that isn’t having that problem, however, was Los Alamos’ preseason scrimmage opponent, Aztec, which traveled with better than 100 players to last week’s preseason workout against the Hilltoppers.

Los Alamos head coach Bob Scott, with 19 seasons under his belt is one of the longest-tenured and winningest active coaches in New Mexico, said he liked what he saw for the most part against Aztec.

“I was happy the way we played the scrimmage,” Scott said. “We were short-handed...but the kids played alright.”

Most teams around the state opened their seasons this weekend, but the Hilltoppers were idle, something that probably worked in their favor with some key players currently banged up.

Nate Robbins, a sophomore who is returning after an impressive freshman year on the offensive line, was hampered by back problems during the preseason. Just as his back was healing last week, he was struck by flu-like symptoms and missed most of the week of practice.

Ryan Schleft, a senior who platooned against Aztec at quarterback along with junior Kory Balog, is also trying to work through injury, as is junior running back and defensive back David Brock.

The Hilltoppers have several returning starters coming back, but will have to cope with some key losses from last season’s team.

For the third year in a row, Los Alamos will start a quarterback that has had limited varsity snaps. Schleft started for the Hilltoppers in a midseason loss in 2008 against Albuquerque Academy and took some other snaps throughout the course of the season.

One of the adjustments Scott said the team will have to make in 2009 is to roll out its quarterback during pass attempts. Neither Schleft nor Balog stands above 5-foot-9, making it difficult for either to see down the field if they’re standing in the pocket.

Last season’s quarterback, Zach Mang, is gone, as are the team’s two other main offensive weapons, Corey Clark and Raul Rodriguez.

In the offensive backfield, Kyle Stephens and Wade Archuleta could both see time at the fullback spot this season, with several players vying for the starting wingback jobs. Austin Wolstein and Kirk Webber are penciled in at the tight end position, with junior John Janke also looking for playing time.

On the offensive line, the center position is still somewhat up in the air — Scott said there could be a lot of shuffling around early in the season — as Robbins will likely be needed at a guard or tackle spot.

Matt Flores, Wes Osborn and newcomer Dennis Trujillo will be looked at for the guard spots, with senior Joey Martinez likely starting at one of the tackle positions.

Defensively, Los Alamos is not short at the linebacking corps, with Trujillo, Flores, Wolstein and David Knapp all likely to be cycled through during Los Alamos’ contests.

“I thought the linebackers did a good job of stepping up and making plays,” Scott said, talking about their performance against Aztec. “I was really surprised with the tackling. We weren’t sure how that was going to go but the tackling was crisp. They were gang-tackling.”

Martinez and Marshall Naranjo will get time at the defensive end spots, with Janke and Webber also likely to get in. Robbins, Osborn, Christian Perea and Taylor Morrison will vie for playing time at defensive tackle.

With a pretty stout run defense returning, the Hilltopper defensive secondary is likely to be tested in 2009.

Scott will look at Archuleta and Brock in the strong safety slot, with Balog seeing time at free safety. Cody Vaughn, Mike Sanchez and Schleft will be at the corners.

Following St. Michael’s, Los Alamos will face Santa Fe at home next week. Santa Fe is tabbed to enter District 2AAAA next year, dropping down from Class 5A where the Demons have taken more than their share of lumps since debuting there in 2000.

The district race isn’t likely to be a cakewalk this season. Capital — despite accounts of a lackluster performance at its preseason scrimmage against Albuquerque — could be a factor, as could the much-improved Bernalillo. Española Valley could be improved as well under Moon, who has a track record for helping struggling programs gain respectability.

Los Alamos opens it 2AAAA season at Taos Oct. 9.

Scott said last year’s Class AAAA champion Goddard, which defeated runner-up Aztec in a wild finale, 49-45, is very likely the team to beat again in 2009. Silver, against which Los Alamos plays its first road contest Sept. 18, could be very tough in AAAA but has also undergone a coaching change in the offseason.

The Hilltoppers finished 2008 with a record of 8-4 and advanced to the state quarterfinal round before being bounced by Aztec, 42-8.

In that game, Aztec rolled up 463 yards total offense, 298 yards of those going through the air, while the Hilltoppers turned the ball over four times.

Los Alamos won District 2AAAA, wrenching the title back from Capital with a wild 33-28 victory over Capital’s Jaguars in the teams’ season finale.