Hilltoppers set to host Broncos in season opener Tuesday

-A A +A

Boys basketball: LA has new coach but many of its key players returning

By Mike Cote

It didn’t take long before Fil Dominguez started to hear what people thought of Los Alamos’ boys basketball team’s offense last season.


During a morning broadcast on KRSN AM 1490, while talking about the Jr. ‘Topper youth basketball program, station owner David Sutton asked Dominguez, “so, are you guys going to shoot this year?”

Fans should be getting a definitive answer quickly, as the Hilltoppers will open the 2011-12 season Tuesday night. The Hilltoppers will host the Kirtland Central Broncos in the season opener at Griffith Gymnasium.

Dominguez, the new head coach at Los Alamos, was an assistant last season under Matt King before King’s unexpected departure in late June to take the head coaching job at Clovis.

Although Dominguez has had head coaching experience in northern New Mexico before, he’s aware coming into the top job at Los Alamos has a unique set of challenges.

“I’ve got big shoes to fill,” he said. “I’ll work my tail off for this school and I’ll work my tail off for this community. I feel I’m a better coach now and I’ve got a heckuva coaching staff. We’ll be alright.”

Dominguez was an assistant under King in 2010-11 and adopted King’s core value system – integrity, improvement, toughness and humility are the four goals of the philosophy – but wants to switch up the X’s and O’s to make the Hilltoppers a more balanced squad this year.

Balance was something that was sorely lacking under King.

While King made no bones that he was a defensive-minded coach, and defense kept the Hilltoppers in most games, the slow, plodding offense displayed for much of the season rarely allowed them to keep pace despite holding their opponents’ scoring down.

Dominguez said he thinks the Hilltoppers got too focused on their roles last season, which were pretty rigid, with his players actually assigned spots on the floor from which they were supposed to take shots.

“We still have some roles, but they’ve got to be basketball players and not robots,” Dominguez said. “They’ve responded well to it.”

The Hilltoppers finished last season with a mark of 7-21. They were knocked out of the district tournament in the quarterfinals by Santa Fe and didn’t make the playoffs.

The 2010-11 season was a rough one for the Hilltoppers, although they did show some signs of life after a slow start. However, because points were at a premium all season, the team never seemed to get in any kind of rhythm.

Tuesday’s contest against a Class 4A opponent could set the tone early.

Kirtland Central advanced to the Class 4A playoffs last season, albeit as the 16th and final seed, but gave the top-seeded Gallup Bengals a scare in the first round. Gallup needed overtime to get by Kirtland Central, 61-56.

The Broncos are an upperclassman-heavy team, with all but one roster player
listed as a junior or senior.

Last season, the Broncos were strong and blocky, especially around the basket,  but not particularly tall.
One of Los Alamos’ key returners this season, guard Nick Baker, said he’s chomping at the bit to get the season started.

“In the preseason, I learned and the whole team learned that we have a lot of talent,” Baker said. “If we put it all together, we can go far.”

The Hilltoppers have a good nucleus returning in seniors Baker, Thomas Russell and Bobby Sanders, although Sanders will be out until January.

Russell emerged last season as the team’s focal point. He started off well last season, scoring 28 points against Kirtland Central and had several other solid performances on both ends of the floor.

In trying to establish itself for the long haul this season, Los Alamos will need the kind of stability veterans like Russell and Baker can provide.

Along with missing Sanders, a forward, for the first part of the season, its tallest player on last season’s squad, Travis Richins, elected not to play basketball, as did David Knapp, one of the team’s top rebounders from a year ago.

Daniel Salazar, another senior, put in good minutes coming off the bench last season, while he and senior Nate Carver are solid spot-up shooters from long range. Dominguez said he’s also been impressed with Salvador Salaiz on the defensive end during preseason workouts and the team has a good group of younger, talented athletes coming up like Skyler Veenis and Seth Drop.

Los Alamos will continue to employ a lot of motion on offense, but Baker said he thinks the team will be able to get into a better offensive rhythm this season.

“We’re more aggressive in the gaps,” he said. “We’ve got some plays that will take advantage of different defenses. It’ll come together nicely.”

Los Alamos still shares District 2-4A with some of the toughest squads in Class 4A, not the least of which is reigning 4A champ Española Valley.

Right now, however, the Hilltoppers will start the season with four of their first five games against 4A opponents, including Piedra Vista, Moriarty and Belen, with a top Class 3A team, St. Michael’s, thrown in for good measure.

“We’ve got a good group,” Dominguez said. “They’re solid. They’re playing hard and they’ve got a chip on their shoulder this year. They want to prove something.”

Following its Dec. 6 game against Belen, Los Alamos won’t play at Griffith Gym for an entire month. It will travel to tournaments at Albuquerque Academy and Roswell for the balance of December, although it won’t be appearing at the Ben Lujan Invitational in Pojoaque, where it had been a fixture since the tournament began.