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Now that the new car smell effect of winning the state Class 4A title two years ago wore off for the Los Alamos Hilltopper boys soccer team, it is able to see itself in a different light.
In 2010, the Hilltoppers ended their 24-year state championship frustration to claim a boys soccer title. But in 2011, the Hilltoppers learned the hard way that the only thing tougher than winning a championship is defending it.
At least one senior on the talent- and experience-rich Hilltoppers, thinks the 2011 season can be summed up in one game, its regular season finale against Capital. And his summation isn’t a positive one.
“That game, how do I say this? People went in and they didn’t want to play,” said forward Ryan Maestas. “Some people were scared. We couldn’t live up to the hype like we needed to. We weren’t ready to play that opponent on that day, and when Henry (Steinkamp) got hurt, that was completely demoralizing.”
A new season for Los Alamos’ boys soccer team has arrived, however. It will get the 2012 season started at home Tuesday against Bosque School.
Going into the season, Los Alamos looks like it may be ready for another serious title run. The team is comprised of 14 seniors and head coach Evan Gartz has placed a whopping 23 players on his varsity roster – Los Alamos’ girls soccer team, by comparison, has 16 players on its opening day roster.
But Gartz said there is no one on the roster who doesn’t completely deserve to be there.
“This is the deepest team I’ve ever coached,” said Gartz. “When we won in 2010, we went 12 or 13 deep. This year, we can go 18 deep.”
Bosque, a team Gartz said is very disciplined and makes few mistakes, should be a good opening-day test for Los Alamos. Bosque, which plays in Class A-3A, was a playoff qualifier last season and is coached by former Lobo head coach Klaus Weber.
Los Alamos returns 8 of its 11 starters from last year, although two of last year’s starters, Zeke Zumbro and Lorenzo Venneri, made up the backbone of the team’s defense.
For Tuesday’s game, Tyler Mullen will get the starting nod in goal. Mullen, a junior, will be replacing Venneri, one of the most acrobatic and instinctual goalkeepers the Hilltoppers had ever place between the posts.
But the 5-foot-10 Mullen said he’s grateful for the opportunity.
“I’m definitely excited for the season,” he said. “I’m pretty proud that I made the team. It was definitely a good accomplishment. I’m ready to get the season going.”
Gartz said Mullen earned the starting nod with what he’s shown throughout the preseason.
Mullen and the rest of the Hilltopper defense will likely be able to count on goal support more games than not. Los Alamos has a dangerous group in the midfield and on the front line.
Along with veteran forward Cooper Christensen – one of the heroes of the 2010 state championship tournament – Los Alamos returns Maestas, who earned All-State honorable mention last year, and senior Nick Thoma, an important table-setter in the midfield and another honorable mention.
Despite fielding one of the deepest teams the program has ever seen, it will hardly be a cakewalk going through a tough 4A field.
St. Pius X, which is not the juggernaut it had been for many years, is still a hurdle the Hilltoppers will have to clear if they want to return to the top of 4A – the Hilltoppers and Sartans meet at Sullivan Field Sept. 8. Also out there are potential up-and-comers Piedra Vista and Atrisco Heritage, defending 4A champion Farmington and one of the state’s preseason favorites, Albuquerque Academy.
And, oh yeah. There’s also Capital.
Capital, much like Los Alamos, will have several of its players returning this season off the 2011 squad that upset the Hilltoppers for the District 2-4A title, not the least of which is its explosive forward Jason Alarcon.
The Jaguars have already gotten their season started on the right foot. They thumped the Taos Tigers 5-0 Wednesday in Taos.
Los Alamos will have a chance to reclaim its district crown when district play starts in late September.
In the 2011 finale, Los Alamos need only to not lose by two goals or more to claim the district title, but the Jaguars dominated the second half of play, scoring twice with under 16 minutes remaining in regulation, including on a disastrous play in which Steinkamp injured his shoulder and had to sit for the team’s opening round playoff loss to Piedra Vista.
“It was hard,” said Christensen of the end of last year. “Last season we had a lot of injuries. I think we were deflated after how the season ended. This season’s about redemption, for getting past that.”
Finishing three games below .500 in 2011 put several things in perspective around the Hilltoppers’ program. Gartz, who coached the team to the 2010 championship, said he learned quite a bit from the experience about what he needs to do from the sideline to get the team back to championship level.
Gartz’s players have picked up on it, too.
“Rigth now, I think everyone’s focused on getting their touches and getting their heads back in the game,” Maestas said. “We’ve seen some good play and we’ve seen some really bad play...I think we’re capable of anything right now. Anything this team wants to work for, anything this team wants to accomplish, I think this team can get it done.”
Evan Gartz (6th year)
Brady Stokes, D
Ben Stewart, D
Cameron Wilson, D
Zayne Walterscheid, D
Henry Steinkamp, MF/F
Nick Thoma, MF
Dallin Parker, MF/F/GK
Rohun Iyer, MF
Cooper Christensen, MF/F
Michael Maestas, MF/F
Kevin Gao, MF
Ryan Maestas, F/MF/D
Nate Matteson, MF
Gabriel Montoya, D/MF
Collin Stone, F/MF
William Steinkamp, MF/D
Cameron Guy, D
Brandon Hodges, D/F
Tyler Mullen, GK/F
Christopher Parker, GK/D
Mathew Tickner, MF
Alexi Ortega, F/MF
Jon Michael Weaver, D
(*: District 2-4A game)
Aug. 28: vs. Bosque School, 6 p.m.
Aug. 31: vs. Belen at Louie Cernicek Invite, 9 a.m.
Sept. 1: at Louie Cernicek Invite, TBA.
Sept. 8: vs. St. Pius X, 6 p.m.
Sept. 11: at St. Michael’s, 4 p.m.
Sept. 13-15: at Alb. Academy Invite, TBA.
Sept. 18: vs. Albuquerque Academy, 6 p.m.
Sept. 19: at Rio Rancho, 4 p.m.
Sept. 25: at Bernalillo, 4 p.m.*
Sept. 29: vs. Santa Fe, 11 a.m.*
Oct. 2: vs. Volcano Vista, 6 p.m.
Oct. 5: at Sandia, 4:30 p.m.
Oct. 6: vs. Capital, 4 p.m.*
Oct. 13: vs. Bernalillo, 1 p.m.*
Oct. 16: at Santa Fe, 4 p.m.*
Oct. 20: vs. Piedra Vista, 2 p.m.
Oct. 23: at Capital, 6 p.m.*