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A lot of people were relieved when the red digital clock at Sullivan Field finally hit all zeroes, but none more than Bob Scott.
“We’re just happy to win and get this game over with,” said Scott, the head coach of the Los Alamos Hilltopper football team after his squad’s 24-22 nail-biting win over the Bernalillo Spartans. “Maybe now we can settle down and get back to business.”
It had been a rough week of preparation around the Hilltopper camp for a number of reasons, not the least of which is having to hear seemingly-endless talk about Bernalillo’s desire to get back at Los Alamos after a 95-0 obliteration at Sullivan Field in 2007.
And for much of Friday night’s game, the Spartans looked like they might be headed to an upset victory which would’ve sent the District 2AAAA race into a whirlwind.
Since reviving its long-dormant football program, Bernalillo hadn’t scored a single point against Los Alamos, but with two third quarter touchdowns, Bernalillo took a 22-18 lead heading into the final 13 minutes.
With 8:03 remaining in the contest, Hilltopper quarterback Zach Mang found running back David Brock in the end zone on a textbook 13-yard crossing route to reclaim the lead.
But the game was far from over.
On its ensuing possession, Bernalillo put together a methodical, clock-grinding drive to get well into the range of Spartan kicker Martin Ulloa with 3:36 remaining.
As they would numerous times in the game, however, the Bernalillo receiving corps would fail. On the field goal try from 34 yards, holder Alan Favela couldn’t handle the snap and Ulloa’s desperation kick attempt didn’t even get past the line of scrimmage.
Bernalillo would get the ball back with 2:00 remaining and move the ball into Los Alamos territory, but a head-scratching halfback option call resulted in a fumble recovered by the Hilltoppers, sealing the wild victory.
It was the third time the Spartans had tried the halfback option in the game, the results of the other two being an incomplete pass that was very nearly intercepted and a two-yard loss.
“All I can say is thank God this one’s over,” Scott said. “They played hard. They played their hearts out.”
Bernalillo, the most-improved team in 2AAAA this season, showed just how far it had come. It actually outgained Los Alamos on offense by a count of 272-264, but its two critical turnovers — the other an interception at its own 29 that led to a Los Alamos touchdown in the second quarter — were too much to overcome.
Los Alamos didn’t turn the ball over in the game.
That wasn’t to say that everything went smoothly for Los Alamos, though.
Raul Rodriguez, Los Alamos’ best ballcarrier, struggled throughout the night, hampered by an ankle injury which he could well struggle with for the rest of the season. Rodriguez rushed 22 times for 84 yards and put the ball on the ground twice.
He did finish with a pair of rushing touchdowns in the first half, one from a yard out and one from 14 yards out.
David Brock, who has been asked to pick up a lot of the extra burden since Rodriguez’s injury three weeks ago, was up to the task again Friday. Brock rushed 12 times for 54 yards and caught the touchdown pass that would ultimately be the difference.
Los Alamos threw the ball more Friday than it had in most of its games over the past four weeks. Mang dropped back nine times and completed six of his attempts for 111 yards.
The best throw-and-catch of the night came early in the game to set up Los Alamos’ first touchdown.
On a fourth-and-14 from the Bernalillo 27, Mang threw a high-archer to fade-route running Kelly Hutchins. Hutchins, a senior whose hands are starting to emerge as some of the most reliable on the squad, outleaped a Spartan defensive back to pull the throw down at the 3-yard line.
Four plays later, on another fourth-down play, Rodriguez thudded his way through on the right side for the score.
Los Alamos might not have had to sweat out the last 13 minutes of the game, however, had it been able to convert any of its 2-point tries Friday. Los Alamos was 0-for-4 in conversion attempts. It was the second straight game the Hilltoppers couldn’t score following a touchdown, failing on two attempts in their victory over Farmington a week earlier.
The win kept the Hilltoppers on pace with the Capital Jaguars, the defending district champions. As expected, Capital crushed the Taos Tigers Friday night in Taos, 50-14.
A win Friday at home over the hapless Española Valley Sundevils will clinch no worse than a second-place finish for Los Alamos. It faces Capital in the season finale Nov. 7, a game that will likely determine the 2AAAA champion.