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An impressive showing during the summer has the Los Alamos Hilltopper volleyball team filled with confidence going into the 2011 season.
But with a tough early season schedule, the Hilltoppers could well need all the confidence they can muster.
Los Alamos opens its 2011 campaign Saturday afternoon at home. It will host a very tough customer, the Pojoaque Elks, to kick off the season.
Pojoaque, one of the premier programs in the state, has won two straight Class 3A championships, three of the last five 3A titles, and is heading into this year as the top-ranked team in the classification. As if that wasn’t reason enough for the Hilltoppers to be wary, Pojoaque’s teams garner a tremendous amount of satisfaction in dropping the Hilltoppers in any sport they can.
But Los Alamos feels it’s as prepared for Saturday’s season opener as it has been for any season opener in recent memory.
“This is the hardest I’ve ever had a team work over the summer,” Hilltopper head coach Garry Maskaly said. “The team camps this summer, we did really well. In that sense, this is the strongest we’ve come into a season, by far.”
The summer workouts were a huge shot in the arm for the Hilltoppers, particularly during a team tournament at Rio Rancho. Facing Cleveland High School, quite possibly the best team in the state, regardless of classification, Los Alamos hung through a tough two-game set, just getting nipped 31-29, 25-23.
Despite the loss, the Hilltoppers from top to bottom came away with the sense that they can play with anyone and they’re hoping that good feeling will carry it through Saturday’s contest.
“I can definitely see it. We want to win this game,” Los Alamos outside hitter Erin Kirk said of the upcoming battle with Pojoaque. “We’ll leave it all out there. We haven’t beaten them in a long time. We’re ready to support each other. I know all of us want it.”
Kirk said the team’s seniors held a meeting recently to get each other pumped up for the Elks, who have owned the Hilltoppers in recent years. Pojoaque has won three straight and four of the last five season openers between the two teams.
Following that contest, however, Los Alamos will have some tough contests to start off its season. Right after Pojoaque, it hosts Albuquerque Academy, then follows that contest up with St. Michael’s, Moriarty and a trip to Santa Fe’s Tournament of Champions.
It starts play in a much-improved District 2-4A Sept. 28.
In 2010, Los Alamos started off the season slowly, going 0-4, before going on a 16-match win streak.
The win streak carried it into the Class 4A semifinals before it fell victim, yet again, to the St. Pius X Sartans.
The Sartans, who finished as the 4A runners-up last season, have knocked the Hilltoppers out of each of the past three state tournaments.
Maskaly said confidence has had a lot to do with those losses at state. Los Alamos held late leads in two of the three sets against St. Pius but committed some unforced errors down the stretch that played a major role in the outcome.
The concept of fearless play is something that has been reinforced throughout Los Alamos’ preseason.
“We need mostly confidence,” Los Alamos setter Savanah Romero said. “We need to believe we can do it.”
The Hilltoppers will have plenty of tools to work with this season to get things started on the right foot.
Los Alamos has some big hitters returning, including senior Chase Ealey. Ealey, in the middle, may be hitting as hard as anyone in the state right now.
Ealey, the top overall athlete at the school, if not the state, has leaping ability above many middles in the state, something that will give her an advantage against most teams should Los Alamos’ passing be on target.
Kirk is also swinging well from the outside and the Hilltoppers have high hopes for sophomore Claire Stewart, an impressive newcomer who will also see time in the middle.
Defensively, the Hilltoppers feel good about what they’ve seen in the preseason, even after having moved some personnel around – Danielle Ortiz, one of the most impressive back-row performers the Hilltoppers have featured in some time, is moving out of the libero spot and moving to the outside. Taking over at libero will be sophomore Allyssa Tedder, while Mariah Zerr and Morgan Schake are also penciled in for the back row.
“We’re really good at getting to out-of-system balls,” Kirk said. “We have a really good defense this year. That will translate to front-line and hitting. We’re really excited.”
Artesia, the defending Class 4A champion, has virtually its entire team coming back from that squad and took the No. 1 spot in the statewide coaches’ poll going away. Los Alamos finished fourth in that same poll.
Maskaly said he’s glad to get a good opening spot in the poll, as it could help the team pick up a better draw in the playoffs should it back up that ranking on the court this season.
“That seed does help if the state tournament has six really strong teams,” he said. “Especially with the semifinals being on the same day as the quarterfinals. That makes more difference than I thought it would.”
Head coach: Garry Maskaly (3rd year)
Assistant coaches: Randy Burditt, Sharleen Espinoza, Patrick Nakagawa, Lindsey Pirtle, Robin Reynolds
Carli Downs, middle blocker
Chase Ealey, middle blocker
Alicia Rendon, outside hitter
Mariah Zerr, defensive specialist
Sophia Barkhudarova, outside hitter
Erin Kirk, middle blocker
Danielle Ortiz, outside hitter
Savanah Romero, setter
Morgan Schake, defensive specialist
Samantha Fenner, middle blocker
Michaela Pigue, setter
Claire Stewart, middle blocker
Allyssa Tedder, libero
* District 2-4A match
Aug. 27: vs. Pojoaque, 1:30 p.m.
Sept. 1: vs. Academy, 1:30 p.m.
Sept. 2-3: at Moriarty Invite, TBA.
Sept. 10: at Sandia Prep, 6 p.m.
Sept. 14: vs. St. Michael’s, 6:30 p.m.
Sept. 16-17: at Tournament of
Sept. 20: at Las Vegas Robertson,
Sept. 21: at Moriarty, 6:30 p.m.
Sept. 28: at Bernalillo, 6:30 p.m.*
Oct. 1: at Santa Fe, 1:30 p.m.*
Oct. 5: at Española Valley, 6:30 p.m.*
Oct. 8: vs. Capital, 6:30 p.m.*
Oct. 15: vs. Bernalillo, 6:30 p.m.*
Oct. 19: vs. Santa Fe, 6:30 p.m.*
Oct. 22: vs. Española Valley,
Oct. 26: at Capital, 6:30 p.m.*