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LA shares pool with St. Pius, Kirtland Cent.

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By Mike Cote

No one said it was easy to win a state championship.Even so, the Los Alamos Hilltopper volleyball team has an uphill road from the get-go.Los Alamos was seeded ninth in the 12-team tournament, which gets going Wednesday morning at the University of New Mexico’s Johnson Center. All teams advance to Thursday’s single elimination play.“I can’t say I like my seeding, but I can’t do much about it,” Los Alamos head coach Diana Stokes said. “We beat Española (Valley) two times and we got a lower seeding. I’m not sure how that happened.”Española Valley’s Sundevils (15-5), whom Los Alamos beat 3-1 Saturday to claim the District 2AAAA title, ended up with a seventh seed for Wednesday’s pool play round. While they have a slightly better draw in Pool A than the Hilltoppers do in Pool C, they still have to contend with the 800-pound gorilla that is Moriarty in the same pool.In Pool C, Los Alamos is matched up with third-seeded Kirtland Central, fourth-seeded St. Pius X and 10th-seeded Shiprock, which made the tournament with an at-large bid coming out of District 1AAAA, which Kirtland Central won.Los Alamos (13-9) saw both St. Pius’ Sartans and Kirtland Central’s Broncos during the regular season, falling to both squads. The Sartans (18-4) topped the Hilltoppers 3-1 in both teams’ season opener Aug. 29, while the Broncos (18-3) knocked off the Hilltoppers in the Moriarty Invitational Sept. 8, also by a count of 3-1.Stokes said she’d be surprised if either of those teams bore much resemblance to how they played earlier in the season.The first team Los Alamos will face in pool play is Shiprock (12-8), which in general beat the teams it was supposed to beat and lost to the teams it was supposed to lose to.Shiprock struggled mightily with Kirtland Central — losing 3-0 and 3-1 in their two meetings — and lost all three meetings with 1AAAA runner-up Piedra Vista — falling 3-2 twice and 3-0 in the district tournament.Los Alamos and Shiprock square off at 9 a.m., followed immediately with Los Alamos facing Kirtland Central.Kirtland Central, a team Stokes thought would be hanging around deep into the state tournament, rolled through 1AAAA this season, losing just three total games.Following their match with the Broncos, the Hilltoppers will get about an hour-and-a-half break before playing the Sartans.St. Pius finished second behind Moriarty’s Pintos in District 5AAAA, which also produced fifth-seeded Del Norte, the other at-large bid in the tournament.The Sartans were the only team in the district to beat Moriarty, and they have some other impressive wins over several Class AAAAA opponents.“We’re in a tough pool,” Stokes said. “We’ll have to see how we do.”Despite the stiff competition, Stokes said the way pool play works — two games to 21 points, capped at 23 — it’s very much up in the air.“If you get on an early run on any team, you might be OK,” she said.Los Alamos has been red hot for the last month of the season going into the playoffs. After starting the season 4-8, Los Alamos has reeled off nine victories in its last 10 outings, including a big road win over Farmington, and two consecutive road wins over Española Valley.Los Alamos posted a 7-2 District 2AAAA record this season, but knows competition will be stepped up considerably.The district had a limited number of hitting threats this season, and none in the middle, except for the Hilltoppers’ duo of Kristina Little and Taylor Ealey. That won’t be the case in the state tournament.Stokes said she will have to decide on the fly whether she will need to single-block or double-block the middle, or whether she will have to cover the outsides.To Los Alamos’ advantage is the fact it has been playing top-notch defense for the past several weeks, led by All-2AAAA first team selection Vanessa Espinoza at libero, aided by second-team selection Megan Burditt, as well as defensive specialist Maria O’Donnell, who has quietly put together some good outings late in the season.Offensively, Little has been consistent, Ealey has improved dramatically during the second half of the district season, and outside hitters Jessica Stokes and Katie Sheppard had huge showings in the district tournament.Coach Stokes also said she liked what she saw out of Kristyne Schoonover Saturday in the 2AAAA title match. Schoonover picked up a season-high five block kills in the contest.“I think they’re getting a little stronger and a little stronger,” Stokes said. “Hopefully, we can carry on with that. They’re all playing well. If I can get all six on the court to play well at the same time, we’re going to be tough.”