It’s a whole new hoop game

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By Mike Cote

Things are going to be considerably different around the Los Alamos Hilltopper boys basketball program for the 2010-11 season.
With several noticeable absences from last season, hardly the least of which is the 6 foot, 11 inch frame of its star center, Los Alamos will have its first chance to see how the changes are taking shape Tuesday night.
The Hilltoppers will open their 2010-11 campaign Tuesday on the road when they travel to the Four Corners area. They will square off at 7 p.m. against the Kirtland Central Broncos.
To say the Hilltoppers will be a work-in-progress this season would be a gross understatement. With only two returning players that have much varsity experience, both of them juniors, Los Alamos may have to play around to find a good mixture.
That mixture will need to congeal by mid-January should the team wish to contend in what could be a brutal District 2AAAA.
While Los Alamos will head into the season under the direction of a new head coach, many of the team’s players have had ample time to get used to his coaching style.
Matt King, a former assistant coach at Albuquerque-area schools La Cueva and Volcano Vista, will make his head coaching debut Tuesday night.
King has held basketball workouts which started just hours after his accepting the top job at Los Alamos. The team has prepped hard during the spring and summer months in preparation for this season.
He said that while Los Alamos is still a work-in-progress at this point, he said there’s still good reason to be optimistic heading into the opener.
“I couldn’t ask for anymore as far as where we’re at,” King said. “As far as game situations, we still need to experience that…it’s still a process. It’s a long journey, but I think we’ve improved enormously from June until now. We’re trying to get a little better every single day.”
Since his arrival, King’s main goal is to establish his coaching philosophy of hard work, toughness and humility. To that end, he’s also, along with Hilltopper girls head coach Tarah Logan, established the weekly Jr. ‘Toppers program for youth in the community.
King takes over for former Hilltopper head coach Alan Kirk. Kirk, who had coached the team for seven years, retired shortly after the end of the 2009-10 season.
Kirk, of course, is just one of two Kirks to leave the program following last season. Alex Kirk, Los Alamos’ main offensive and defensive threat for the last three seasons, also wrapped up his career as a Hilltopper.
The nearly 7-foot Kirk is currently on the roster for the University of New Mexico Lobos, posting a double-double in his first collegiate game Nov. 13.
But Kirk, point guard Wade Archuleta, shooting guard Zach Parks and forward Austin Wolstein, the team’s nucleus from last season, have all departed, along with another starter, Brandon Owens, who moved out of town. Owens would’ve been the team’s lone returning senior this season.
Los Alamos’ only returners with any significant varsity experience from 2009-10 are Nick Baker and Thomas Russell, both guards. Both players were among the first off the bench for the Hilltoppers last season.
Another returning roster player, junior Ben Schilling, started to get some minutes for Los Alamos during the District 2AAAA season, but injured his knee last season and has still not fully recovered. Schilling was expected to undergo surgery this month but he said his return to play in 2010-11 was unlikely.
In 2009-10, the Hilltoppers advanced to the Class AAAA quarterfinals for the fourth straight season, but for the fourth straight season, advanced no further. It fell to the Albuquerque Academy Chargers 56-47 at The Pit in Albuquerque.
Los Alamos finished the season with a record of 19-10 and was the runner-up behind the powerful Española Valley Sundevils.
The Sundevils ended up as the Class AAAA runners-up to the Roswell Coyotes, losing the thrilling final 63-60.
This season, Española Valley could well be the team to beat in AAAA, if not the entire state, with several starters returning, including one of the most electric guards in the state, Rodney Coles.
Once again, District 2AAAA could be the toughest top-to-bottom in the state, with the Capital Jaguars well stocked with talent from last season and newcomer to the district, Santa Fe, also primed to be a contender.
“Three of the top five teams in the state are just 20-30 minutes away from us,” said King, who thought St. Pius X might also be in the Class AAAA mix this season, as well as possibly Los Alamos’ opening night opponent.
Kirtland Central, which made the state AAAA playoffs last season before getting upset at home by St. Pius in the first round, has eight returning players, including four starters.
The Hilltoppers will open their home schedule Nov. 27 against another tough customer from the Four Corners area, Piedra Vista. The Hilltoppers knocked off the Piedra Vista Panthers in the first round of the state playoffs last year.
Other big games the Hilltoppers have prior to their Jan. 19 District 2AAAA opener against Bernalillo include Dec. 1 hosting Class AAA tough St. Michael’s, trips to the always difficult Albuquerque Academy Invitational, which starts Dec. 9, and a trip to St. Pius Jan. 11.
Included in the nondistrict schedule is a Jan. 4 home game against Volcano Vista, King’s most recent school, which moves into Class 5A this year.