LA boys face tough challenge in quarterfinals

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By Mike Cote

For the past two seasons, the Los Alamos Hilltopper boys basketball team stuck to routine heading into the quarterfinals of the Class AAAA playoffs.


Two losses later, the Hilltoppers this season are trying basically to throw themselves a curveball.

Los Alamos heads to the quarterfinal round of the 2009-10 state championship tournament Wednesday. The sixth-seeded Hilltoppers will go up against the third-seeded Albuquerque Academy Chargers.

To prepare for Wednesday’s 8 a.m. start time, Los Alamos (19-9) has been holding practices at the crack of dawn this week. Those 6 a.m. practices are designed to get the team acclimated to an unusual tip-off time.

Following Los Alamos’ win Saturday the tournament’s first round, the thought of practicing at sunup and playing early in the morning wasn’t sitting terribly well with anyone.

“This actually felt kind of weird,” Hilltopper guard Zach Parks said, talking about Saturday’s 2 p.m. game against Piedra Vista. “(8 a.m. is) even worse. You’ve got to get up, eat breakfast, get focused and get over to The Pit.”

Los Alamos has lost each of the past three seasons in The Pit in the state quarterfinals. It fell in 2007 and 2009 to Artesia and in 2008 to St. Pius X.

The Pit will be the home court of Hilltopper Alex Kirk next season. Kirk, Los Alamos’ 6-foot-11 center, signed his National Letter of Intent to play basketball with the University of New Mexico.

In 2009, Kirk had one of the best games of his career up to that point at The Pit. He finished that 2009 quarterfinal game with 39 points, but Los Alamos still fell to eventual AAAA runner-up Artesia 69-58 in the contest.

The Hilltoppers haven’t advanced to the state semifinals since 2001, their first season in AAAA.

The Hilltoppers won the previous year’s Class AAA state title, led by 7-foot center Chris Jackson, but were dropped in that tournament’s semifinal round by Albuquerque Academy.

Academy, meanwhile, has been consistently in the top three in most statewide polls this season, right behind Roswell and Española Valley, which were given the top two AAAA seeds in the state tournament.

The Chargers (21-7) won the District 5AAAA regular season and tournament titles, then thumped 14th-seeded Belen in the opening round of the state tournament, 82-49.

The Chargers are a senior-heavy team led by one of the top all-around athletes in the state, Pat Zacharias. Zacharias was not only a preseason All-State selection in 2009, but he is arguably the second-best prep distance runner in the state.

While Academy can’t match Kirk’s size, across the rosters, it is the taller of the two teams with five players 6-3 or above. Senior forward Devin Sims is listed at 6-7.

Coaching the Chargers is one of the most successful head coaches in the state, Mike Brown. Brown led the Chargers to six-straight state titles between 1989-1994 and to five runner-up finishes since 1995, most recently in 2008.

None of this seems to be much of a deterrent to the Hilltoppers, however.

“I’m excited to play Academy,” Los Alamos forward Austin Wolstein said. “They’ve always been our rivals. They’re a tough team. I’m ready for it.”

Los Alamos earned a big victory of its own Saturday in knocking the Piedra Vista Panthers out at Griffith Gymnasium, 89-56.

It was Los Alamos’ most productive offensive game of the season with three Hilltoppers – Kirk, Parks and Brandon Owens – finishing in double-figures and Wolstein just missing out on becoming the fourth.

The Hilltoppers were the District 2AAAA regular season and 2AAAA tournament runners-up this season. They have won three of their last four games heading into Wednesday morning’s quarterfinal.