LA faces Academy in state semifinal

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By Mike Cote

Conventional wisdom would say the low seed in a tournament has the shortest shelf-life.

Generally, that thinking holds up well. But the lowest seed in the Class AAAA boys state soccer tournament isn't going anywhere without a fight.

The Los Alamos Hilltoppers, the low man on the totem pole heading into the AAAA state semifinals, has already proven that, bumping off the third-ranked Roswell Coyotes in Pool C play last week.

Los Alamos earned a bruising 4-2 victory over Roswell to advance to Thursday's semifinal against the second-seeded Albuquerque Academy Chargers.

The Hilltoppers didn't particularly feel like they'd pulled off an upset over the Coyotes.

"The last two weeks of the season, we started playing like a really good soccer team," Hilltopper head coach Evan Gartz said. "We came in as a sixth-seed, and we deserved to be a sixth-seed."

Los Alamos (14-8) struggled through the middle of its schedule in 2007, but won when it had two, including what amounted to elimination games against Taos and Capital in the last two weekends of the regular season to earn the District 2AAAA runner-up slot and advance to state.

Now, Los Alamos is among the hottest teams in the state, having won six straight and seven of its last eight.

However, as good as the Hilltoppers have been during crunch time, the Chargers have been about as good through the entire 2007 season. The Chargers are 16-6 on the season, 16-4 against teams not named St. Pius X, the top seed in Class AAAA.

St. Pius takes on fifth-seeded Farmington in Thursday's other semifinal. Both games are scheduled to start at 1:45 p.m.

Los Alamos and Academy met Sept. 18 in Albuquerque, with the Chargers prevailing 4-2.

Los Alamos, as it did in almost all of its games this season, scored first in the contest, but as in most of its losses this season, couldn't hang on to that lead.

"They're definitely going to be good opponents," said Hilltopper fullback Austin Prince following the Roswell contest. "But we can't look at a team like that, it causes intimidation. Obviously, they're good...but we've got to go in feeling like we can win every game."

Academy is a solid defensive unit, having recorded eight shutouts on the regular season, and runs a good portion of its offense off the chances its defense produces.

Gartz said that's the approach Academy took in the Sept. 18 contest.

"We're going to think defensively," Gartz said. "What they're going to have is everyone back, and as you crash to them, they counter-attack...If we see them attacking a lot, we may go with two sweepers."

Charger goalkeeper Garrett Nygren is rated fourth among Class AAAA keepers. Nygren was credited with 99 saves on the season and a .972 goals-allowed average.

Only a tick behind Nygren is Los Alamos' Grant Janecky, who has 105 stops on the season - fourth in AAAA - and a GAA of 1.15.

Offensively, Academy's leading scorer is Darren McAfee. McAfee, a sophomore, earned 11 goals and 14 assists (36 total points) on the season.

After McAfee, Jayanta Majumdar, a senior forward, finished with 15 goals and two assists (32 total points).

After McAfee and Majumdar, however, Academy's scoring drops off considerably. Midfielders Connor Stern and Jacob Thordahl had five goals and eight assists each for the Chargers.

The Hilltopper defense, led by Prince, sweeper Marcus Cappiello and fullback Mike Jones, have been stellar of late, particularly against some of the top scoring threats in the state.

The Hilltopper defense put the clamps on Pablo Quintana of Piedra Vista, held Taos' lethal duo of Alan Caedo and Patrick Pacheco scoreless Oct. 20, and allowed only one good look to Roswell's Oscar Vela, the second-leading scorer in AAAA Saturday.

Offensively, Los Alamos has been led for most of the season by Ryota Shimada. Shimada, who is also the flashiest Hilltopper ball-handler, is fourth among Class AAAA scorers with 20 goals and 16 assists (56 total points).

Aaron Robinson put up solid numbers from his midfield spot this season, earning seven goals and 13 assists, while Jason Reagor, who converted two big penalty kicks in the win over Roswell, picked up 10 goals and three assists this season. Will Schoonover had 22 total points during the regular season.

Also for the Hilltoppers, John Urbane, who was out for a large portion of the season, picked up three goals and an assist in the two Pool C games, as well as the foul that led to Reagor's first penalty kick.

In the other semifinal, St. Pius, which has been ranked number one in virtually every major state poll this season, is the five-time defending Class AAAA champ, and a solid favorite to win this tournament as well.

Josh Cruz is the Sartans' main scoring threat, picking up 26 goals and 10 assists in 2007.

In the back, goalkeeper Francisco Martinez made 75 saves and had a GAA of just .756.

Farmington, which pulled off a minor upset in Pool D by knocking off Taos and Deming, played just .500 soccer during the regular season, but has won six of its last seven decisions.

The Scorpions have a solid goalkeeper in Ryan Lawler (.966 GAA), but will need to find a way to score early and, better yet, often, against the heavyweight Sartans.