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In the locker room following practice, members of the Los Alamos Hilltopper football program are staring at the only light in the room: a projected image on the back wall.
Before the projection, a clip of game film, even gets fully rolling; several of the Hilltoppers call out, “counter, counter!”
They’re right. The Valencia Jaguars are executing a counter-tray against the Hilltoppers’ upcoming opponents, the Los Lunas Tigers.
“You see that?” head coach Garett Williams asks no one in particular. “The defensive end stays there, he stays right there and he gets kicked out.”
The film session breaks for the evening, but Williams lets his team know if any of his players wants to come in before school or at lunch time, he will be there to go over the film some more.
The Class 4A football playoffs start for the Hilltoppers Friday night. It was a day that many thought might not come for the team in 2011.
Things didn’t bode well this season, starting in the pre-preseason. Los Alamos didn’t perform well during the summer passing league, finishing behind Española Valley, Santa Fe and Pojoaque. Then, during preseason workouts, it was hit with a rash of injuries, including to key backfield members Jared Mang and Arnoldo Ortiz, which kept them out of early season contests.
“From the sidelines, I didn’t think it was going to be all that great of a season,” Ortiz said.
Los Alamos limped to a 1-4 record through the first half of the year. Along the way, it took several big shots to the chin, from Pojoaque, from Aztec and from Farmington.
The Hilltoppers finally broke into the win column, however, with a 21-20 victory over unheralded Bloomfield in a game that went down to the wire.
While that wasn’t the big jumping-off point of the season — that would come two weeks later — something seemed like it started to click for the Hilltoppers during the game’s final drive, in which they drove to midfield after being backed up on their own 1-yard line. Hilltopper freshman quarterback Danny Finn had a 7-yard scramble for a first down to keep that drive alive as Los Alamos effectively killed the clock.
The game that seemed to turn the Hilltoppers’ fortunes around, however, was Homecoming night against Albuquerque Academy.
“We just started rolling over teams,” Ortiz said. “We started having fun from there. It’s always good to play good teams, because you feel like you’ve been through a lot. Then we just rolled through district.”
For its Homecoming, Los Alamos went in as the underdog. But it would be Los Alamos that had all the bite.
Los Alamos’ defense held Academy’s Chargers, ranked No. 4 in Class 3A and one of the top rushing teams in the state, without an offensive touchdown. Meanwhile, Ortiz rushed for 200 yards, while freshman Jared Mang, who emerged this season as a superstar-in-the-making, had 84 yards on just nine carries and scored three times as the Hilltoppers prevailed 36-20.
“We had a great game plan. The coaches gave us a great game plan,” said Hilltopper JD Weiss. “That’s when the defense really started to step up. They’ve been lights out since then. That set the stage for the second half of the season.”
Before the big Homecoming upset, the Hilltoppers had been outscored by a whopping 215-51.
But the Hilltopper defense more than solidified. Getting good push upfront — Alan Dahl, Clint Adams and Grant Washburn all had multi-sack games late in the season — combined with a secondary that was a big question mark heading into 2011, which cornerback Jake Downs had a big hand in stabilizing, made the defense the best in District 2-4A.
“I think one of the big things playing those early games was we got a chance to see some great teams,” Williams said. “Even though we had some adversity, we got to see that hard work and perseverance always pay off at the end. That was a great lesson this year.”
Los Alamos wouldn’t drop another game from there on out. The following week, it routed two-time defending District 2-4A champ Bernalillo, 38-0, then won a wild, hard-fought contest on the road against 2011 district favorite Santa Fe, taking a 30-20 decision.
With the Hilltoppers having buckets of momentum to spare, Española Valley and Capital, which struggled throughout 2011, ended up being little more than speed bumps trying to slow down a Sherman tank. Both Ortiz and Xavier Dennison rushed for over 100 yards in both games — with neither playing for much more than a quarter and Dennison going for 100 yards in four rushing attempts against Capital — while the defense held Española Valley to 24 yards total offense and had Capital in negative-yardage territory for much of the first half.
Los Lunas (8-2) should provide a much stiffer challenge than did Los Alamos’ district opponents (see story on page 8), but come what may Friday night, the Hilltoppers have come a long way in 2011. Further, perhaps, than almost anyone other than those on the team expected.
“Every season is different, but this season in particular has been extremely satisfying,” said Williams, who is making his first trip to the postseason guiding the Hilltoppers. “As a coach, the best part of coaching is seeing kids constantly learning things, seeing kids start to do what they’ve been coached. The success in the last half of the season, that’s why I do this.”