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Los Alamos opens state against St. Pius

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By Mike Cote

The good news for the Los Alamos Hilltopper softball team is that manager Roger Anaya was very close on his prediction of where his team would end up in the Class AAAA bracket.

The bad news is he was off by one spot and the worse news is it was the wrong way to miss.

Prior to the release of the Class AAAA softball brackets earlier this week, Anaya thought his team would earn a No. 7 seed and play Roswell in the opening round of the state tournament.

Instead, the Hilltoppers finished as the No. 8 seed, placing them in the top half of the AAAA playoff bracket where they will face St. Pius in Friday’s opening round.

The tournament opens Friday morning and continues through Saturday in Las Cruces. Each surviving team will play two games per day. The state title contest is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Saturday.

The winner in the first round contest between Los Alamos and ninth-seeded St. Pius X is likely to have its hands full in the quarterfinals. That team will almost certainly play the top-seeded team in the state in AAAA and quite possibly the top prep team in New Mexico, regardless of classification: the Piedra Vista Panthers.

While playing Piedra Vista (24-2) in the playoffs is a tall order virtually every year, this year it will be a different ball game. The tournament dropped its traditional double-elimination format for this season — double-elimination is slated to return for 2011 — and the losers of each ballgame get to go home.

Los Alamos’ players, however, are no strangers to upsets.

In 2009, in the team’s first season under Anaya, it pulled off the upset of the tournament.

Los Alamos, a 13-seed, upended fourth-seeded Farmington in the first round, 4-3.

While Los Alamos lost its next two contests before advancing any further, the crowd was still abuzz about the upset win for the balance of the tournament.

The potential quarterfinal match-up this season, however, could make the Farmington upset pale in comparison.

“It’s hard not to think about that opponent and think about St. Pius,” Anaya said. “If we get a chance to play Piedra Vista, I told the girls that’s an opportunity of a lifetime to pull off an upset. If we get that opportunity, our girls aren’t afraid.”

This season, the Hilltoppers win the District 2AAAA championship, going a spotless 12-0 in 2AAAA play to earn an automatic berth in the playoffs.

Two of the Hilltoppers’ district opponents, Española Valley and Bernalillo, were given at-large nods this season. Española Valley, the 2AAAA runner-up, was awarded a 12th seed and will face fifth-seeded Moriarty Friday, while Bernalillo earned the final slot of the tournament, a 16th seed, and will face those same Piedra Vista Panthers to open tournament play.

The Hilltoppers got on a roll in late March, thanks to a big 18-2, 3-inning win over the Taos Tigers to open 2AAAA play.

Since then, the Hilltoppers have won 15 out of 16 contests to end the regular season, including a 13-game win streak between March 31-April 28 that ranked among the longest streaks in the state in 2010.

However, the Hilltoppers haven’t played a game since May 1 when they swept the Capital Jaguars to end their regular season. Anaya said he’s hoping in 2011 he can schedule at least one game the week before the state tournament so his team won’t be going into the playoffs possibly having to shake off some rust.

Right now, however, he said the time off has afforded the team some good workout time.

“The eight days of practice we had, we used it to our advantage,” Anaya said. “When you have several games in a week, you don’t have time to correct things. We’ve been focusing on the things we needed to perfect to compete at the state level.” Last week, the Hilltoppers actually put together an intra-squad game, splitting up pitchers Monika Teter and Stephanie Abney and assigning one to each squad. The game was a competitive one, ending with a final of 3-1.

As for Los Alamos’ opening round foe, St. Pius, it finished with a record of 14-10 in 2010 and was 5-4 in District 6AAAA.

St. Pius’ Sartans started out of the gate quickly this season, going 8-3 in their first 11 ballgames this season, but won less than half of their ballgames from that point on. Part of their struggles later in the season was due to three meetings with another very strong Class AAAA school, Volcano Vista. Volcano Vista (23-3) won that district’s title race by four games over St. Pius and by five games over third-place Belen, which failed to make the tournament.

The Sartans and Hilltoppers didn’t play each other this season, although the scouting report on the Sartans is that they’re aggressive on the base paths and will take the extra base anytime they think they can make it. To counter, Los Alamos put a lot of work in during practice on its defense, particularly on hitting cutoff throws from the outfield.

Offensively, the Hilltoppers are led by catcher Micaela Christensen, who hit five home runs this season, and Abney, who was in the top three in many statistical categories for the Hilltopper lineup.

Abney, a senior, was also named the District 2AAAA Player of the Year for 2010.

The top-seeded Panthers, meanwhile, won the very tough District 1AAAA championship by a pair of games over runner-up Kirtland Central. The Panthers’ two losses on the season both came on an exclusive road trip the team took to Huntington Beach, Calif., in late May. The Panthers lost to El Modena, Calif., and Mortimer Jordan, Ala., during that trip.

Beyond the two losses — the El Modena loss was by a final of 1-0 — Piedra Vista posted 16 of its wins by five runs or more and gave up more than two runs in a game just once this season.

The Panthers enter the playoffs as the four-time defending state champions. A team from District 1 has won the AAAA state title every year since 2002.