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There are some new faces around the Los Alamos Hilltopper girls varsity soccer team heading into the 2009 season.
Early on, the challenge will be to find a replacement for one of the faces that departed.
Los Alamos opens its 2009 season Friday morning when it hosts the Los Alamos Girls Soccer Invitational. Los Alamos will play in pool A with Ruidoso and Kirtland Central, while Aztec, St. Michael’s and Capital will compete in pool B. All tournament games are scheduled to be played at Sullivan Field.
The Hilltoppers have nine seniors on their roster, eight of them returning from last season’s team, but lost eight players to graduation.
Among the graduation losses was the top player in Class AAAA last season, Maneesha Chitanvis. Chitanvis was far-and-away the top scorer in the classification with 29 goals and 20 assists, accounting for about a third of Los Alamos’ total scoring for the season.
Goals were at a premium for Los Alamos last season outside of District 2AAAA, which includes, other than the Hilltoppers, four of the weakest programs in the state.
Los Alamos head coach Jiri Kubicek, heading into his 18th season of leading the girls soccer proram, said there’s going to be a period of adjustment early in the season while he figures out exactly how he wants to use his personnel.
“We’ve got good speed and we’ve got some very good skills,” Kubicek said. “We’ve just got to put it all together.”
The position he’s got his eagle eye on the most during heading into Friday’s tournament is the center-halfback. He plans to try out a few people at the position to see how they respond.
Los Alamos isn’t heading into 2009 devoid of scoring threats, however. Its second- and third-leading scorers from 2008 are both back this season and will look to try to duplicate or improve upon their productivity.
Seniors Saya Shimada and Kelsey Neal provided solid offensive support to Chintanvis, with Shimada picking up 13 goals and 10 assists in 2008 and Neal tallying 13 goals and nine assists.
Shimada and Neal will probably be asked to get the ball in the net early and often in 2009 to try to stave off some of the problems that the Hilltoppers faced in 2008.
Los Alamos finished last season with a very respectable mark of 18-6 and advanced to the state AAAA championship game.
The state title game was one to remember for the Los Alamos returners. Not in a good way.
“Thinking about it, it still hurts,” senior Laura Nelson said.
Los Alamos dominated the first half of the state title contest against the Albuquerque Academy Chargers, but at the half, the game was scoreless.
In the 67th minute, Academy’s Bridget Hill slid into a loose ball directly in front of the Los Alamos net for the only goal of the contest. Academy managed just two shots in the entire championship game to Los Alamos’ nine shots, but it ended up being enough for the Chargers to earn a 1-0 victory and the state title.
Nelson said she still cringes when she thinks about the 2008 finale.
“It gives me motivation to win this year,” she said. “The seniors really want it this year. We have a good team. We’ve got a good chance, but we have to work hard to get there.”
While Los Alamos gets its offense ironed out, Nelson, senior Shaina Riciputi and junior Clare Charsley-Groffman are all returning starters on the Hilltopper back line, as is seasoned goalkeeper Jenny Tumas.
Tumas finished as the fifth-ranked goalkeeper in AAAA last season, posting a goals-against average of .753 in 1,380 minutes played in front of the onion bag. She stopped 86 shots and allowed just 13 goals.
Nelson, Riciputi and Charsley-Groffman were a big part of keeping opposing offenses at bay.
“We have a pretty good defense,” Charsley-Groffman said. “I hope we don’t have any goals-against.”
Beyond Charsley-Groffman, Los Alamos only has one junior with much varsity experience, Charlotte Hoover. Los Alamos features seven juniors and two freshmen — no sophomores.
This season, Kubicek will be closely watching freshman Amy Neal, whom he said has potential to be solid on the offensive end. Kubicek likes Neal’s speed and said she handles the ball very well.
Among the teams that will make an appearance at this weekend’s tournament, only St. Michael’s made much of an impression at last season’s playoffs. St. Michael’s Horsemen advanced to the Class A-AAA semifinals before falling to eventual state champ Bosque School. Neither Ruidoso nor Aztec survived the pool play round of the postseason while Kirtland Central and Capital weren’t event invited to attend.
Being a heavy favorite to win the tournament isn’t a problem for the Hilltopper girls, who rarely get to host big events, and are looking forward to getting a chance to start the season at Sullivan Field.
“It’s great to have a tournament at home,” Kubicek said. “We need to work on it a little more, get more teams. Getting some 5A schools would make it more challenging.”
Los Alamos’ athletic office has been dealing with a budget crunch but Kubicek said his team was only affected by fiduciary problems in that it couldn’t schedule a regular season contest against Sandia — Albuquerque Public Schools, which oversees Sandia, is under financial strain as well.