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It won’t go down as the prettiest win in Los Alamos Hilltopper football history, but with their backs to the wall, the Hilltoppers kept their playoff hopes alive Friday at Sullivan Field.
Facing the odds-on favorite to win District 2AAAA this season, the Hilltoppers came back from a 14-point deficit, scoring 19 unanswered points in the second half to stun the Santa Fe Demons Friday night.
It was a pretty simple scenario for Los Alamos heading into the game: a loss would virtually eliminate it from any shot at a 2AAAA title, while a win would put it right back into the mix.
Los Alamos (2-6 overall, 1-1 in 2AAAA) will still need those same Demons to do it a favor by knocking off Bernalillo in two weeks, but for now, Los Alamos will try to capitalize on the biggest win in head coach Garett Williams’ young career.
“We lost two extremely close games just like this one because, when we got down to the end, we shot ourselves in the foot,” Williams said. “(Friday), we found a way to win. That was important for us.”
The two games Williams referred to were a nondistrict contest at Bloomfield and last week’s heartbreaking loss at Bernalillo which put the Hilltoppers into the early district hole. Bernalillo, with a win over Santa Fe, would all but seal its second-straight 2AAAA title, but the Hilltoppers will play out the remaining two games of their schedule and hope for the best.
Los Alamos’ Arnoldo Ortiz, a sophomore, is quickly morphing into one of the top offensive players in the district from his tailback spot. After rushing for a game-high 97 yards, he said that while the team was pumped to keep its postseason dreams intact, that wasn’t much of a concern.
“We just wanted to win, just play as hard as we can,” he said. “There was nothing else.”
Early in Friday’s contest, both teams were moving the ball relatively well. Los Alamos, however, had two 10-plus play drive stall in the first half, both inside the Santa Fe 30-yard line.
The second drive, in the second quarter, found the Hilltoppers get down to the Santa Fe 5, but a holding penalty on third down pushed them back to the 14. Two plays later, Santa Fe defensive back Marcus Alarid dropped Ortiz for an 8-yard loss, giving the Demons the ball back with 3:45 left in the half.
Just five plays later, Moses Montoya broke free on a middle screen play, going 79 yards for a score to give the Demons a 14-0 edge, which they held at the break.
The Demons (4-4 overall, 1-1 in 2AAAA) passed the ball very effectively in the first half, with quarterback Jason Fitzpatrick completing 11 of 15 attempts for 176 yards.
In the second half, however, the Los Alamos secondary, spearheaded by safety Kory Balog, made some big plays, while Fitzpatrick’s receivers dropped some potentially big passes.
None of the three Demon dropped passes in their final last-ditch drive was more costly than a perfect strike from Fitzpatrick to his brother, Ryan Fitzpatrick, which hit him right in the numbers at the goal line before clanking to the ground. A completion on that play would’ve put the Demons back up 20-19 with under 50 seconds to play, but Ryan Fitzpatrick, who had a step on his Los Alamos defender, couldn’t hang on.
What swung the game for the Hilltoppers as the contest wore on, however, was a big showing at the line of scrimmage.
Santa Fe started the contest able to run the football, but as the game wore on, Los Alamos started to fill the running lanes and take largely take away that capability in the second half. Santa Fe gained just 42 yards rushing in the second half and just 60 total yards after halftime.
On the flip side, Los Alamos rushed for 261 total yards, 156 of those coming after the break.
Balog, from the quarterback spot, finished with 92 yards on 21 carries.
The big play of the game, however, came with just 2:10 remaining. Mike Sanchez, who’d had just three touches up to that point, broke away on a 68-yard scamper down the left side for a touchdown that put the Hilltoppers up 19-14.
Sanchez found a crack on the left side and slipped right through, beating out Santa Fe’s safeties down the left hash.
Williams said the offensive line, which has had more than its share of trouble this season, including some horrific snaps out of Los Alamos’ pistol set that played a huge role in the team’s loss last week at Bernalillo, was able to keep things together and make the blocks it needed to.
“We found some things in that first half that we knew we could do to them,” Williams said. “We came out and executed those plays. We knew if we could rely on that, we’d be able to win this football game.”
Left tackle Grant Washburn, another sophomore, has helped solidify the left side of the offensive line this season and his block helped spring Sanchez for the game-winner.
In the third quarter, following a 23-yard punt return by Balog, Los Alamos went 47 yards in six plays to get on the board. Ortiz dove in from 5 yards out to cut the Santa Fe edge to 14-7.
Following a blocked punt to open the fourth quarter, Ortiz again went in, this time from the right side, from 9 yards out to put the Hilltoppers within one point.
“It was great,” Ortiz said of his second touchdown. “There’s no other feeling in the world like it.”
The extra-point try, however, went wide left.
Santa Fe got the ball on its last three possessions with excellent field position, one after an unsuccessful pooch kickoff, the second after a Hilltopper fumble and the third when Los Alamos’ kickoff following Sanchez’s score went out of bounds, but the Demons could do nothing on any of those three drives.
Balog connected on 2 of 5 pass attempts Friday for 25 yards – the Hilltoppers didn’t throw the ball once in the second half. Sanchez finished with 85 yards on three carries and the big touchdown. Ortiz’s 97 yards came on 18 totes, a healthy 5.4-yard average.
Fitzpatrick threw for 201 yards, but completed just three passes after halftime, not that his receiving corps helped him very much after the break. Montoya caught 10 passes for 192 yards.
Also for Santa Fe, fullback Jesse Ulibarri finished with 61 yards on 10 carries, while Joshua Roybal had 29 yards on 13 carries and the Demons’ first touchdown.