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The journey to a state championship starts with a single step.
Or in the case of the Los Alamos Hilltopper girls soccer team, it starts Thursday against the Moriarty Pintos.
Los Alamos starts its quest for its fifth state girls title Thursday against Moriarty at the Farmers Insurance Soccer Complex at Santa Ana Pueblo. That match starts at 11 a.m.
The Hilltoppers (16-4) are the top seed in Pool B of the Class AAAA World Cup Round, where they will also play Santa Teresa Saturday.
Should Los Alamos win its pool, it would advance to the AAAA semifinals against the winner of Pool C, which includes Albuquerque Academy, Del Norte and District 2AAAA runner-up Taos.
Los Alamos has been on the short list of state title contenders all season, and now it will get its chance to see how good it really is.
"I think we have a great chance," Hilltopper fullback Laura Nelson said Tuesday, as the team makes final preparations for the tournament. "If we play to our potential, I know we can. I think we can do it this year."
Los Alamos and its first round opponent, Moriarty, have already crossed paths in 2007. The two teams played Sept. 20 at Sullivan Field on a rainy, dreary afternoon. And although the Hilltoppers earned a 2-0 victory, Hilltopper head coach Jiri Kubicek said he was disappointed in how his team was finishing its scoring chances.
In fact, that's what the Hilltoppers are spending a good deal of time on in their workouts this week at the Pueblo soccer fields.
Los Alamos outshot Moriarty 33-3 in the Sept. 20 contest, including three one-on-one chances in the first half that resulted in no goals. Los Alamos didn't score until well into the second half, despite the ball rarely leaving the Moriarty side of the field throughout the first 40 minutes.
Kubicek said he's expecting more of the same strategy everyone seems to use against the Hilltoppers: pack the goal, then catch a lucky ball on offense. It's a strategy that almost never works, yet it's a favorite among the Hilltoppers' opponents.
"They're going to sit on defense and work for a breakaway," Kubicek said. "We're going to have to be smarter, mark them, and not give them a chance to score an easy goal."
Moriarty has a solid pair of runners upfront that Los Alamos will have to be wary of in case a Pinto breakway chance does materialize. Molly LaRue is the Pintos' top scorer on the season, picking up 11 goals, and Adriene Lents has eight goals on the season.
In the back, Megan Bond, who had 15 saves against the Hilltoppers in their regular season contest, earned 94 saves in 2007 and allowed 22 goals (a stingy 1.13 goals allowed average).
The Hilltoppers are expected to have standout striker Desirae Hull back on Thursday. Hull injured her ankle in a nondistrict contest at Sandia Oct. 11 and hasn't played since.
Hull said she can run on her ankle, but her lateral mobility is still a question heading in.
"It feels a lot better," Hull said. "It's not perfect, but it's getting close."
While the timing of Hull's injury for the Hilltoppers could've been a lot worse, it was a bummer personally for Hull, who had just two days earlier become the leading scorer in Class AAAA.
Despite not having played in three weeks, Hull is still fifth overall in the state with 49 total points.
Hull's playing time will likely be limited in these first two state tournament contests. She estimated she'd be able to play half of Thursday's game without any trouble.
Right behind Hull in the state scoring ranks is Sarah Ethridge, who has put together an outstanding season in her own right. Ethridge has tallied 16 goals and handed out 14 assists on the season.
Saya Shimada, who took over Hull's chores during her injury, has moved into the top 20 in Class AAAA scoring, joining teammates Maneesha Chitanvis, Heidi Nakaoka and Asli Unal.
Although it has played just .500 soccer this season, Moriarty has beaten Aztec, Del Norte and Farmington, all of whom qualified for the state tournament.
Kubicek said he wants Thursday's game put away early.
"The thing is, we can make it really hard on ourselves," he said. "If you don't score, you make it difficult. We need to control the game early and play our soccer."