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Having a week off can be a blessing heading into the playoffs, or it can be a mixed blessing.
Whether a week’s worth of rest turns out to be the former or the latter for the Los Alamos Hilltopper girls soccer team remains to be seen.
On the one hand for the Hilltoppers, who will open the 2011 state Class 4A playoffs Thursday morning, they have had plenty of time to iron out some details. Their last game of the regular season was Oct. 22 and have nearly two weeks to get their game in top form.
But time off from competition can mean rust. It can also mean momentum gained during the regular season can be lost.
In Los Alamos’ case, the two bugaboos of having time off could come into play. Los Alamos closed out the regular season winning five games in a row and 10 out of 11.
But Jiri Kubicek, the 20-year veteran head coach of the Hilltoppers, has been in this position more than once and can generally stave off the problems associated with idleness. Last week, the Hilltoppers played three game-like simulations, two against the Hilltopper sub-varsity boys teams and an intrasquad contest in an attempt to keep skills sharp.
Los Alamos is the No. 2 seed in the 4A playoffs — the top four seeds in each classification get byes into the quarterfinal round — and will play the seventh-seeded Piedra Vista Panthers Thursday. The teams will square off at 11 a.m. at the Albuquerque Public Schools Soccer Complex.
As usual, the top three seeds in the tournament are St. Pius X, Los Alamos and Albuquerque Academy. At no time since the reclassification of 2000 has any other team except those three advanced to the state championship game.
St. Pius, largely on the strength of its 2-0 victory over Los Alamos in mid-September, earned the No. 1 overall seed in 4A this season and are on the opposite side of the bracket as the Hilltoppers and Academy’s Chargers. Most likely, the biggest effect that will have is that the Hilltoppers and Chargers will meet in the semifinals instead of the finals, where they have faced off in each of the past three seasons.
“It probably doesn’t matter,” Kubicek said. “Last year, St. Pius played Academy (in the semifinals). This year, it’s our turn to play them. If we had gotten one, Academy probably would’ve gotten four.”
While it’s certainly not difficult for the Hilltoppers’ minds to wander to deeper in the playoffs, they could be facing a potential dark horse Thursday in Piedra Vista.
The Panthers (15-5-1) finished third in a tough District 1 race, which included fourth-seeded Farmington and sixth-seeded Aztec.
A victory by Piedra Vista over its cross-town rival, Farmington, would’ve created a three-way logjam at the front of District 1. Instead, Farmington prevailed 1-0.
Panther head coach Shaun Taylor said he thinks the 4A title is wide open this year.
“In previous years, 4A has had teams that really stood out,” Taylor said. “This year, everybody in the top seven is pretty evenly matched.”
Taylor said his team made considerable improvement over his 2010 squad in many areas, including ball control and on defense. Offensively, the Panthers were able to generate good looks at the goal, but Taylor said he would’ve liked to see his team convert more during the 2011 regular season.
Piedra Vista’s attack was led this season by Madilyn Tanner and Erica Briseno up top. While Tanner and Briseno put up very similar offensive numbers this season, their style of play is night and day.
“They’re two com-pletely different players,” Taylor said. “One is pure speed and very accurate and the other is pure finesse. They’re two completely opposite style players…If one’s struggling, the other is doing well.”
In the back, goalkeeper Madison Hunt finished with the sixth-lowest goals-against average in 4A, .897 goals per contest, just slightly ahead of Los Alamos’ Bryce Theesfeld (1.03 GAA).
The Hilltoppers spent most of their prep time working out at Sullivan Field, which has artificial surface similar to that of the APS complex. The focus of their workout time was ball control and touches.
While Los Alamos felt like its time was well spent, the lack of game time was nerve-wracking all around.
“It’s hard not having an opponent to demonstrate all your efforts,” said Hilltopper Jennifer Paul. “But it’s given us a break to work on essentials. That makes us a phenomenal team. You don’t have time to do that when you’re playing three games a week.”
This season, Los Alamos has defeated four Class 4A teams that advanced to the playoffs, including topping Academy twice.
Should the Hilltoppers get to their fourth consecutive state title contest — Los Alamos last won in 2003 — they would likely face St. Pius in a good ol’ fashioned grudge match.
In their Oct. 7 contest in Albuquerque, the Sartans scored a controversial goal midway through the second half. The Hilltoppers said the Sartans didn’t return a ball after it was kicked out of bounds during an injury, as is the custom in soccer. The Sartans took advantage of an unprepared Hilltopper defense to score.
“We’re really looking forward to another match with St. Pius and Academy,” Hilltopper sophomore Chandler Art said. “We’re all good teams. They’re the match-up everyone’s looking forward to at state. We’re ready for them.”
Much of what Los Alamos does finds its way across the path of Amy Neal.
Neal, a junior, was the leading scorer in 4A during the regular season, amassing 85 total points.
Following Neal, Naomi Movshovich finished with 32 points (12 goals, 8 assists) and Leslie Guarello, who had a good District 2 season, had 21 points (8 goals, 5 assists).