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The good news for the Los Alamos Hilltopper football team is the learning curve on either side of the ball isn’t going to be very steep.
Los Alamos opens its 2013 season Friday night and has several veterans on its roster heading into opening night when the Hilltoppers head down the hill to take on the Pojoaque Valley Elks.
The only big loss on the offensive side of the ball is bruising fullback Arnoldo Ortiz, a three-year starter in the Hilltopper backfield. Beyond that, the skill position players are back, along with some athletic newcomers.
Los Alamos head coach Garett Williams knows his team and his team knows their jobs.
“We’re way ahead of where we’d normally be at this time of year,” said Williams. “Before, it would’ve taken three or four games to hit our stride. But these guys, with the experience they have, we’re looking good right now.”
Friday’s game could be an interesting test. Pojoaque Valley was humbled 55-14 in the 2012 opener at Sullivan Field, but the Elks have upgraded on the offensive line — three players are at or near the 300-pound mark — and have promising athletes in the backfield.
That game could be the first of a salty nondistrict season for the Hilltoppers.
Following the Elks, Los Alamos will open at home against Farmington, then host St. Pius X the following week.
Homecoming is Oct. 4 against Albuquerque Academy.
Williams has Farmington, St. Pius and Sept. 27 opponent Belen as locks for the Class 4A playoffs and thinks his team will have to have good showings against those teams for postseason purposes.
Los Alamos finished 6-4 last season and was the runner-up in District 2-4A behind Santa Fe. However, the Hilltoppers weren’t invited to the 2012 postseason.
For better or worse, the Hilltoppers’ season was defined by their loss at home to the Santa Fe Demons. Demon running back Anthony Abeyta and quarterback Jordan Booth-Homer blew through the Los Alamos defense virtually at will in the first half to win 62-30 at Sullivan Field.
Williams said the team was shell-shocked by the Demons and never recovered. But the Hilltoppers are doing their level-best to ensure that doesn’t happen this season.
“That’s definitely been a huge focus,” Williams said. “We reminded guys of that game every day in the weight room this summer.”
On offense, Los Alamos has Brice Van Etten returning at quarterback. Van Etten, in his first full year as a starter last year, made the most of his opportunity, throwing for 1,090 yards and eight touchdowns. He also rushed 93 times for 552 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Van Etten looked good during summer workouts and he’s playing with a lot of confidence with one of his primary targets, Seth Drop (24 catches, 499 yards), returning this season.
Tristen Hill, Sidney Ellis and Simon Heath, three big targets, are also in the starting lineup, with Hill set to take over tight end spot.
On the offensive line, center Brian Geyer (6-1, 215 ponds) returns, as does Peter Brewer (6-2, 230) and Collin Nickless (5-11, 235) on the left side o the line. Jonathan Schueler (6-2, 205), started games late in 2012 and will be at the right guard spot, while junior Conner Temple (6-2, 205), has moved into the right tackle position.
The biggest change in the offense is at the fullback position. Xavier Dennison, who played wingback for the last two seasons, will get the nod.
Dennison, at 185 pounds, isn’t the punishing runner that Ortiz was, but Williams thinks Dennison’s speed will be a big factor in the running game’s success.
The Hilltopper defense is anchored by inside linebacker Elliott Hersman, the reigning 2-4A defensive player of the year. Hersman had a team-high 49 solo tackles and 3 sacks.
Sam Ortiz, Hersman’s partner on the strong side of Los Alamos’ defensive formation, was credited with 19 tackles and 5 quarterback hurries last year.
Los Alamos forced 15 turnovers last season, with Drop and free safety James Higdon both finishing with two interceptions.
With the Hilltoppers’ roster filled with seasoned performers, Williams said the team’s fortunes will come down to execution.
“This first game, we want the kids to come out and play aggressively,” he said. “This game is about coming out, executing and setting the tone for the season.”