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Few people will ever accuse the Los Alamos Hilltopper boys soccer team of stacking its home tournament in its favor.
The Hilltoppers finished fourth at their home tournament this weekend, going 1-2 against some top competition from around the state. In the third-place game Saturday afternoon, The Hilltoppers lost a heartbreaker to the Farmington Scorpions, 4-3.
Farmington scored two goals in the final nine minutes of play after Los Alamos went up 3-2 in the 68th minute. Ryan Maestas scored on a counter-attack after a big push from Farmington resulted in a line shot from CJ Klepac right to the gut of Hilltopper goalkeeper Lorenzo Venneri.
The Louie Cernicek Invitational has been hosted by the Hilltoppers since 1997. The tournament was known as the Mountain Top Invitational until 2001, when it was renamed after Cernicek, who was one of the founding fathers of prep soccer in New Mexico.
It is a rare year when Los Alamos wins its home tournament. Los Alamos came in this season as the defending tournament championship, but the 2010 title was the first it had won since 2004.
Unlike many other tournaments, Los Alamos doesn’t stack its home tournament with cupcakes. Of the eight teams taking part, five were ranked in the top 10 in Class 4A, while three of those, Los Alamos, Farmington and Belen, were ranked in the top five.
The Hilltoppers were knocked out of the championship bracket in the semifinals by the Coyotes Saturday morning. The Coyotes got a late header into the goal from Jose Dominguez to secure a 2-1 victory in the semifinal round.
In the championship game of the tournament, the Belen Eagles scored early in the first half and late in the second half to down the Roswell Coyotes 2-0. The Eagles, the runners-up in Class 4A this season, came out on top in a tangle between them, the Scorpions and the Hilltoppers, who are all among the top teams in the state.
Ricardo Perez of Belen scored what would end up being the game-winner for Belen in the 16th minute of the championship, sending a rocket shot into the upper-right corner from about 20 yards out.
In the third-place game, Dallin Parker scored goals in both halves including the equalizer at the 65-minute mark, which shifted the momentum in the favor of the Hilltoppers for about six minutes, during which time Maestas was able to score the go-ahead goal.
“Definitely, it’s always disappointing when you’re up in the game, you make one or two mistakes and they score,” Maestas said.
The Scorpions waxed the Hilltoppers in the teams’ first meeting a week earlier, 5-0 in Farmington. CJ and Jeremy Klepac, who have made life miserable for Los Alamos for several years, had big games for the Scorpions in the Aug. 27 meeting and again caused havoc in the third-place contest.
The Klepacs combined for a beautiful combination with just over a minute remaining to close out the contest. Jeremy Klepac dribbled to the middle of the field near the top of the penalty box then sent a short pass to CJ cutting diagonally toward Los Alamos’ goal mouth.
CJ Klepac went into the corner to give the Scorpions the game-winner.
Following the game, he said he wasn’t surprised the Hilltoppers came out Saturday and gave the Scorpions a scare.
“We killed them last time at our place, but this is their field,” CJ Klepac said. “We were ready for them to give us a better fight this time. We were expecting it.”
Farmington was on the wrong end of a minor upset in the semifinals, falling to Belen 4-3 in a back-and-forth contest against the Eagles, who have as goon an offense as anyone in the state.
Parker scored the first of his goals Saturday just 14 minutes in against Farmington, heading in an arching pass from David Stroud, who beat the Farmington defense down the right sideline.
Farmington would answer right before the end of the half, with Ryan Reeves, who was named to the All-Tournament team, fielding a long direct kick from CJ Klepac. Reeves was well behind the Los Alamos defense when the direct kick arrived, but no offside infraction was called.
The third-place contest was a physical one with plenty of pushing and shoving going on throughout. Los Alamos head coach Evan Gartz said he was glad to see Los Alamos remaining physical with the Scorpions throughout the game, something it didn’t do in the teams’ previous meeting.
Gartz said the team spent a fair portion of practice time this week just knocking each other around in preparation for this tournament and a potential rematch with the Scorpions.
“We talked before the season about Farmington being the team to beat,” Gartz said. “I still believe that, but it gives us a lot of excitement. We’re going to build from this. You can learn a lot from a loss.”
Parker’s second goal in the 65th minute came off an assist from Zeke Zumbro. Zumbro spent much of the third-place game helping on the defensive third of the field, a change the Hilltopper defense was glad to have.
Zumbro was named to the All-Tournament team for Los Alamos along with midfielder Henry Steinkamp.
Despite the fourth-place finish, Los Alamos felt it put together a solid three-game set, especially considering it has four more games next week, including Monday’s contest against a solid Class 3A program, St. Michael’s.
“Physically, it takes its toll a little bit,” Maestas said. “I thought we were in a lot better shape than the other teams that were out here. After three games, everybody’s dead, but we’ll be ready to go by Monday.”
In the semifinal game against Roswell, following a largely uneventful first half, the Coyotes started playing more pressure defense in the second half, leading to numerous Hilltopper turnovers. The Coyotes were able to pick the pocket of Hilltopper dribblers throughout the second half, cutting short plenty of Hilltopper attack opportunities.
While Los Alamos generally was able to hang on to the ball through the midfield in the second half – midfield control was spotty for the Hilltoppers in the first half – the Roswell defense was right in the middle of most of Los Alamos’ passing lanes and forced the team to try to dribble through. Roswell, which played very good defense against the dribble Saturday morning, held the Hilltoppers without a shot for nearly 20 minutes to start the second half despite the ball being in Coyote territory for a good chunk of that time.
However, after Roswell’s first goal, coming on a penalty kick in the 62nd minute by Jovanny Andrade after teammate Fernando Sanchez was knocked down inside the box, Los Alamos drove right back down the field just a little more than a minute later to score the equalizer.
Over the past season-plus, the Hilltoppers have excelled at scoring in their hurry-up offense. In the 63rd minute against Roswell, Cooper Christensen picked up a rebounded pass off a Roswell fullback and quickly pushed it into the net to tie the score.
In its season-opening victory, facing a late deficit against the Rio Rancho Rams, the Hilltoppers scored with just over a minute remaining, also in hurry-up mode, to force overtime. The Hilltoppers would go on to win the game on penalty kicks.
After not getting a shot off in the second half until the 59th minute, Los Alamos would fire off six shots in just a little over 10 minutes, including Christensen’s goal.
Roswell would go up to stay in the 76th minute, however, with Dominguez just getting the crown of his head on a high direct kick from about 30 yards out. The header deflected inside the left goalpost out of the reach of Venneri.
The late goal seemed to zap the remaining energy out of Los Alamos, which managed only one more shot before the conclusion of the contest.
Roswell outshot Los Alamos 13-9 in the contest, 10-7 after halftime. Venneri finished with three saves.
To advance to the semifinals, Los Alamos held on for a 2-1 overtime victory over the Goddard Rockets, one of the teams that actually went into this weekend’s tournament unranked.
Steinkamp scored a goal three minutes into the second sudden-death overtime period to give Los Alamos the opening-round victory. Steinkamp buried a direct kick from just outside the penalty box into the upper-right corner of the Rockets’ goal
Again, Los Alamos needed a late goal to survive regulation and force the overtime periods.
Nick Thomas’s diving header tied the game with under 90 seconds remaining in regulation after Goddard’s 67th minute goal looked like it might hold up.