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While it wasn’t precisely a do-or-die situation Friday night at Sullivan Field, it wasn’t too far off, either.
And both the Los Alamos Hilltoppers and the Bernalillo Spartans played like it.
Los Alamos and Bernalillo went blow-for-blow in a thriller in the District 2-4A opening football game for both schools. But it would be Los Alamos winning a tight decision in the final round.
Hilltopper fullback Xavier Dennison plunged in for a touchdown from a yard out to give Los Alamos a 39-35 lead with just over two minutes remaining.
The Spartans weren’t done yet, though. They drove the ball down to the Hilltopper 9 yard line with about 25 seconds left to play, but couldn’t procure the game-winning score.
With three shots at the end zone – Bernalillo had to spike the ball on first down to stop the clock – the Hilltoppers forced three straight incompletions to pick up the victory.
“We were trying to stay in the game, stay cool, stay calm,” Los Alamos lineback Elliot Hersman said of the Spartans’ final possession. “I was telling my teammates to be strong. We worked so hard for this. It’s an amazing feeling.”
Hersman, the 2012 Defensive Player of the Year in 2-4A, had one of the biggest plays of a game chock full of big plays, picking off Spartan quarterback Ralf Olguin at the Bernalillo 12-yard line and rumbling 88 yards down the left sideline for a pick-6 with 3:54 remaining in the first half.
Prior to Hersman’s interception and runback, the Spartans had put together a lumbering but effective drive, taking the ball from their own 25 to the Hilltopper 17 on a clock-grinding 10-play possession.
But on a third-and-3 play, Olguin, who had been a perfect 8-for-8 passing up to that point, got heavy pressure on a short dropback and tried to find Raymond Fasano going across the middle, but instead found Hersman, whose pick-6 gave Los Alamos a 14-7 lead.
Then, the fireworks started going off.
Bernalillo answered back 1:07 later with a halfback pass from Nick Reyes to a wide open Marcus Jaramillo for a touchdown.
Just 50 seconds later, Hilltopper Brice Van Etten connected with wide out Tristen Hill for a 58-yard catch-and-run touchdown on a post pattern. Exactly 1 minute later, Bernalillo Olguin hit Reyes on an out route at the goal line for another score.
It looked like Los Alamos might answer back before halftime, driving in four plays down to the Bernalillo 10, but Van Etten’s corner route throw was picked off deftly by Bernalillo cornerback Jamal Campbell, preserving a 21-20 locker room edge for the Spartans.
The situation is dire for any District 2-4A team with playoff aspirations this season. The odds of any 2-4A teams picking up an at-large invitation into the playoffs are virtually nonexistent, so to keep realistic hopes of making the postseason alive, a team will very likely have to run the district table.
It’s a scenario the Hilltoppers, after going 1-5 in the nondistrict season, are well aware of.
“We’ve just got to stay positive,” Van Etten said. “In the game of football, there’s going to be some mistakes, but you can’t play football in the past and you can’t play football in the future. You’ve got to play in the moment.”
The lead changed five times in the second half with the two teams swapping scores throughout.
Los Alamos needed just two plays to retake the lead from Bernalillo. Following a 44-yard kickoff return by Marcos Vigil, Los Alamos’ other fullback, Sam Ortiz, rumbled 38 yards, breaking no less than five tackles in the process, to the end zone.
Both teams tackled poorly all night, something that hurt the Hilltoppers in their loss last week against Albuquerque Academy. Bernalillo was able to keep a pair of scoring drives alive Friday due to missed Los Alamos tackles.
For Los Alamos, Dennison scored three times in the game, twice in the second half.
His late-game touchdown was followed up by a usually inconsequential play that ended up having implications in the end.
Alex Delamarter, who was filling in for injured kicker Brian Geyer, converted the point-after attempt, his only attempt of the game. Los Alamos had elected to go for 2 after all of its other scores.
Delamarter’s PAT gave the Hilltoppers a 4-point cushion and, moreover, forced the Spartans (0-7 overall, 0-1 in 2-4A) to drive the length of the field for a touchdown. When the Spartans got deep into Hilltopper territory late, they otherwise would’ve needed just a field goal from their competent kicker Jaime Alvarado to force overtime.
Instead, Olguin orchestrated a very nice 2-minute drill to get the Spartans within striking distance, helped out by two huge back-to-back pickups from Reyes, but Los Alamos’ defense stiffened on the Spartans’ three shots from the 9-yard line to preserve the win.
“It was a dogfight,” Hersman said. “But the basic thing was we stayed positive...it shows our record doesn’t matter. We went with one of the best teams in the state. You don’t judge a team by its record.”
Friday night’s test was the first one passed. The second big test will come this Friday when the Hilltoppers travel to Ivan Head Stadium for monster game against the Santa Fe Demons.
The Demons, the defending 2-4A champs, earned a 27-6 victory at Española Valley for its first win of the district season, but that win was a costly one. Santa Fe quarterback Robert Corriz, the team’s main offensive threat, was ejected late in the game for taunting following Santa Fe’s final touchdown. His ejection Friday means he won’t be able to play against Los Alamos.
Van Etten said it was great to pick up the win over Bernalillo, but there’s still plenty of work to do.
“Definitely our tackling, we’ve got to be able to tackle,” he said. “We’ve got to maintain blocks. When we’re there, we can’t let them go. Tonight, we did a better job with turnovers.”