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One of the good things about playing a tough opponent early in the season is it lets you know right away what needs to improve.
Such was the case for the Los Alamos Hilltopper volleyball team Tuesday in its 2014 opener.
The Hilltoppers took on an old rival, the St. Pius X Sartans, at Griffith Gymnasium. The Sartans, using a balanced, efficient attack, upended the Hilltoppers in three straight sets.
Los Alamos started off the match fairly well, but St. Pius’ service game and attack got rolling midway through set one and carried it through the second set. Though Los Alamos mounted a stand in the third set, the Sartans still prevailed 25-16, 25-16, 26-24.
Last season, both Los Alamos and St. Pius got bumped out early from the state playoffs and, heading into this season, are both breaking in new head coaches.
Tuesday’s loss spoiled the debut of Los Alamos’ Sharleen Espinoza as the head of the Hilltopper program.
But, with a long history behind the rivalry, Espinoza said she expected nothing less than a dogfight.
“St. Pius is always tough competition to start the season,” Espinoza said. “They’re a good opponent to play against. Nerves did get to the girls in the first set, but my expectation was for us to play hard and play as a team. I think we did.”
Going into 2014, Los Alamos has several experienced hitters upfront, most notably Brianna Montaño and Sierra Foley, both juniors.
Foley, however, was moved into the middle position in the preseason — she was very effective last year from the outside — and didn’t get as many looks in the middle Tuesday as she might normally have gotten, even against a St. Pius unit that’s not as tall as many have been in the past.
The Sartans (1-0) concentrated much of their block upfront against Montaño, who didn’t get many looks until the late going.
Montaño led Los Alamos with four spike kills, while Foley managed only two spike kills, although she did finish with two tip kills and two blocks.
The Hilltoppers (0-1) did see some flashes of good play, particularly early in the final set when they went up by six points early and were up as much as 13-6 with the side-out.
“We all started talking as a team,” said Montaño of the third set. “I started swinging and I stopped being scared. I told everyone, ‘you guys have my back.’ We’re playing a lot of new people. It’s all about trust.”
Behind new transfer player Ashlynn Trujillo, a second team all-district player a year ago with Española Valley, Los Alamos jumped out in the third set to a 7-1 lead. Trujillo, who played both up front and in the back but started Tuesday as the libero, had an ace serve and forced two other Sartan serve-receive errors en route to the early advantage.
St. Pius, however, would make a comeback in that final set. Middle hitter Emily Burford recorded three block kills and two spike kills in the third to lead St. Pius’ rally.
At the end of the set, Los Alamos was down 24-21 with the Sartans serving, but got two key serves from Noelle Gallegos to stay alive before the Sartans were able to close out the contest on a spike kill from Burford.
While it’s usually disappointing for Los Alamos when it falls to St. Pius, the Hilltoppers feel like they will make some improvement over the course of the year.
“We’ve got a lot of changes…but once we get them going, they’re going to be really strong for us,” Espinoza said. “I’m pleased with what I’ve seen so far.”