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LA makes good showing against No. 1 team in country

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By Mike Cote

It was an opportunity not many people get, but the Los Alamos Hilltopper girls soccer team took advantage of it Thursday night.

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The Strongsville, Ohio, Mustangs, traveling through northern New Mexico this week, wanted to take in some local sights and sounds, as well as play some soccer.

Strongsville, however, is not just a bunch of ordinary tourists. It so happens to be the No. 1-ranked team prep team in the country.

Thursday, it dropped in for a visit to Sullivan Field to take on the Hilltoppers, one of the premier teams in the area.

Strongsville is a suburb of Cleveland and the Mustangs make annual treks to various places across the country. This year’s trip just happened to be through the area.

In the offseason, Mustangs’ head coach Jon Felton got in touch with girls soccer organizers in Taos and asked if his team could drop by for a visit. From Taos, Felton was connected with Hilltopper head coach Jiri Kubicek, who jumped at the chance for his team to host an elite program such as Strongsville.

In Thursday’s contest, the Hilltoppers had a solid showing, keeping pace with the Mustangs for most of the way despite having to play most of the contest a man down after drawing a first half red card.

But Mustang captain Alexis Manoa crushed two shots from near the top of the top of the penalty box in the first half, placing them expertly into the far lower corner for the only tallies in a 2-0 Strongsville victory.

The Mustangs are the most decorated public school program in Ohio history, having won four state titles including in 2011. When the Mustangs get back to Ohio Sunday, they will immediately start preparing for the 2012 Ohio state playoffs.

“Being No. 1, you have a huge target on your back,” Manoa said. “That makes it harder...We had two losses last year and we had one loss early this year. After that, we turned it around. We play very well together.”

Strongsville features six players that have already verbally committed to playing at the collegiate level, five of them with Division-I, including Manoa, who, along with teammate Paige Amodio, are slated to attend Bowling Green.

The Mustangs got into Albuquerque late Wednesday night, but were up early Thursday and hopped on a bus.

“We went to Puye Cliff Dwellings and did an hour tour,” Manoa said. “It was absolutely amazing. That’s stuff that we don’t have in Ohio. We don’t get to see that all the time.”

Strongsville has been going on its “National Tour” since 2005. In those eight years, it has visited both shores, Utah, Indiana and plenty of places in between.

Felton has been the driving force behind getting the team out to see the country, but the idea wasn’t his initially.

“As a kid, I had a coach that took us all over the world,” he said. “He found a way to fund it and I saw some amazing places. (At Strongsville), we don’t go to the vacation spots. We’re not going to the beach or to Disneyland. We’re going to find some sweet places. We went to northern California and started just kind of doing things...Soccer, really, is secondary on these trips.”

On this tour, the Mustangs have plans to go rock climbing and horseback riding in the Taos area. They will play the Taos Tigers Saturday at Eco Park.

Against Los Alamos, Strongsville displayed some impressive speed and ball movement. Los Alamos, the No. 1 team in Class 4A and No. 2 team in all classifications in this state, had to scramble to keep up with Strongsville’s precision ball movement.

However, the Hilltoppers played even with the Mustangs for a big chunk of Thursday’s contest. The Hilltopper defense in particular rose to the occasion, with Chandler Art breaking up a potential scoring chance in the second half, poking the ball away from forward Kelly Novak – an impressive dribbler – and Dominique Dinardo in the penalty box.

Stephanie Blair, Los Alamos’ top back line player, also had a good outing against Strongsville.

But Manoa, who was actually fairly well marked on both her scoring chances , blasted in her two goals in the first half – at the 18- and 27-minute marks – and just narrowly missed a third score in the second half when another shot to the lower far post rolled about six inches wide.

On the other end of the field, Los Alamos, one of the highest-scoring teams in the state, only generated a couple of scoring chances. Hilltopper star forward Amy Neal was expertly marked throughout the contest, with shutdown fullback Maddy Novak rarely more than a couple of feet away.

Strongsville outshot Los Alamos 12-6, including a 6-2 advantage in the opening half.

“I think we didn’t play our best today,” said Neal. “Some of our players haven’t had the experience of playing out of state teams. I can see how they were nervous. Others were super-excited, like me.”

In goal, Hilltopper Bryce Theesfeld made four saves. The three Strongsville goalkeepers making appearances combined for three stops.

In its 13 straight wins, the Mustangs have outscored their opponents 49-4, 10 of those wins coming via shutout.

So, what does it take to be No. 1?

According to Felton, lots of time.

“We push skills at a very young age,” Felton said. “We coach after school until dark. You keep playing good teams.”

And Strongsville, with a very healthy crop of young players coming up in the area’s Olympic Development Program, appears to have a very good chance of holding onto its high national ranking.

“You’re used to that pressure each game,” Felton said. “We’re not worried about that pressure.”