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Hilltoppers open season Wednesday vs. Academy

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By Mike Cote

There’s a lot to be excited about around the Los Alamos Hilltopper girls varsity basketball team this season, although the preseason excitement might be a bit premature.Because of the vast expanse of athletic ability the team has returning this season, Los Alamos has already gotten some buzz as being one of the teams to beat in the 2007-08 campaign.But Los Alamos is going to find out how good it is and what improvements it needs to make early this season with a top-heavy nondistrict schedule.Los Alamos opens its season Wednesday at home against Albuquerque Academy. That game is set for 7 p.m. at Griffith Gymnasium.The Hilltoppers started preseason workouts Nov. 5, although the bulk of their projected roster was still off playing soccer or volleyball. Nevertheless, things already seem to be coming along in preparation for Wednesday’s opener.“I’m pretty happy, actually,” Hilltopper head coach Gerry Washburn said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, we’ve got a lot of teaching to do. In terms of athletic ability, and size-wise we’re in real good shape.”Washburn is returning for his 13th season in charge of the Hilltopper girls program. Washburn was named Associated Press Coach of the Year in 2000-01, leading his team to a third-place finish at state after finding out late in the season a transfer student on his team had incomplete paperwork and, as a result, Los Alamos had to forfeit all but one of its regular season contests.Los Alamos is coming off a solid 2006-07 season, where it finished 19-11 and second in the regular season District 2AAAA race. Los Alamos won the 2AAAA tournament and went on to the quarterfinal round of the Class AAAA tournament.The team also flirted with 20 wins in 2005-06, going 19-13 and also winning the district tournament.One of the first orders of business for Los Alamos this season will be finding its go-to player.“It happens ever year,” Washburn said. “The team is looking to score, and that was Germayne (Salazar) last year…This year we need to find that person.”Based on early workouts, that go-to scorer inside might well be Bryanna Richins, a 5-11 junior who has looked good in the low post. Richins had a solid season last season, picking up 10.3 points per game and averaging 4.0 rebounds.Also returning to the squad from last season is Sarah Ethridge (10.1 PPG, 6.2 RPG last season), who will be playing the two-guard position. Through Ethridge’s career, Los Alamos is 38-24 when she’s in the lineup. After Richins and Ethridge, who have played 110 varsity contests between them, big squad experience is spotty.The next-most experienced returner this season is Jamie Begay, a 5-0 guard with 22 games under her belt. No other returner has played more than 14 varsity games.Following the Academy game, Los Alamos hits the road for two other contests this week. It will be at Del Norte Thursday then takes on Pojoaque Saturday.Washburn said the Pojoaque game should be interesting, not simply because the Elks thoroughly enjoy knocking the Hilltoppers down a peg every chance they get, but because the Elks may themselves be a contender for a Class AAA state title this season.On Dec. 6, Los Alamos will head down to the Albuquerque Public Schools Invitational Tournament before returning home to face Aztec Dec. 11.Other highlights of the team’s nondistrict season are a home meeting with Kirtland Central Dec. 22, a trip to the New Mexico State University Hoopla Tournament starting Dec. 27 and home tilts with Farmington Jan. 11 and St. Pius X Jan. 19.Los Alamos opens its District 2AAAA season Jan. 22 against Taos.Washburn said he thinks Kirtland Central — which has all but two players from last season’s team back. In 2006-07, Kirtland Central advanced to the state championship game before falling to its District 1AAAA rival Aztec in the title game.Kirtland Central is one of the most successful programs in the nation, with 17 state titles under its belt, currently third in the nation among girls programs.Other teams that might contend this season include Moriarty, which will have good size, and St. Pius, which usually figures into the state mix somewhere.Because of its tough early schedule, Washburn said his team will likely take some lumps, especially while it’s trying to find its scoring.“If we hit our stride mid-district, that would be perfect,” he said. “That’ll put us in good position going into the postseason.”In its first games of the season, Los Alamos, which figures to have a lot of speed on its squad in addition to its size, will first be looking to settle into a half-court system. Once it gets its inside-outside game established, then it may look to score points in transition.Patience, Washburn said, will be a virtue this season.Additionally, Washburn said he’d like to develop his bench during the nondistrict season.“I’m hoping by the start of district we’ll be 10-deep,” he said. “We have the potential to be 10-deep.”