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Hockey: LA falls in state final to Rio Rancho

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By Mike Cote

RIO RANCHO — A stretch of just over 10-1/2 minutes would be everything the Rio Rancho Rams needed and everything the Los Alamos Hilltoppers didn’t.The Los Alamos Hilltopper hockey team, playing in Saturday’s New Mexico Interscholastic Ice Hockey League pure team championship, outscored Rio Rancho 3-0 in the bookend periods, but the Rams scored four unanswered goals in a 10:37 stretch of the second period, holding on for a 4-3 win.Saturday’s state title game was played at the Santa Ana Star Center in Rio Rancho, the home ice of the New Mexico Scorpions professional hockey team.The Hilltoppers jumped out to a 2-0 lead early in the second period and just missed on another scoring opportunity before the Rams’ offensive onslaught.The big blow of the contest came with just 8.9 seconds remaining in the middle frame. With Rio Rancho trying to kill a penalty, Rio Rancho’s Steve Cassacelli broke through the middle of the ice skating down a loose puck and went straight in against Hilltopper goalie Dylan Stupka to tally a shorthanded goal, giving the Rams a 4-2 edge.The Hilltoppers bounced back to score at the 4:59 mark of the third period, with Oliver Funsten converting on a 1-on-1 chance with Rio Rancho goaltender Jojo Griego, assisted by Nathan Sharp and Dylan Schreiber, whose defensive clear set up the scoring chance.Despite several late chances and pulling Stupka with about 1:20 to go in regulation, Los Alamos couldn’t pick up the tying goal.Funsten scored what appeared to be the tying goal midway through the final period, but it was ruled he actually kicked the puck into the net, and the goal was negated.The Hilltoppers (13-4 in NMIIHL play) were seeking their first state title since 2001 Saturday.After the two initial goals — the first in the opening period from the team’s leading scorer throughout the regular season, Zach Mang, at the 9:54 mark and the second from Brad Picard — Rio Rancho’s defense regrouped, keeping the potent Hilltopper offense largely in check through the balance of the second period.Cassacelli scored twice in the period. With 2:48 remaining, Cassacelli scored off an assist from Austin Short to make the score 3-2.Mang’s goal was assisted by Schreiber and Gabe Wadt, the same duo who assisted Picard on his power play goal.Los Alamos beat Rio Rancho in the teams’ two NMIIHL regular season meetings, outscoring the Rams by a combined 14-5.Saturday’s meeting was the second weekend in a row the two teams faced off. They saw each other in the finals of the Year End Tournament at Taos a week earlier, a game that ended in a 3-3 tie. Both teams had already qualified for the state title game prior to that tournament’s finale.Stupka finished Saturday’s game with 18 saves. Griego had 20 saves to net the win.Santa Fe, the team that had given the Hilltoppers the most amount of trouble this season, was the winner in the NMIIHL’s composite championship, also held Saturday. Santa Fe thoroughly trounced Eldorado 12-3 to win that division’s state title.