New-look LA boys open Saturday at UNM Invite

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By Mike Cote

Year in and year out, the goal for the Los Alamos Hilltopper boys cross country team is the same: knock Albuquerque Academy off its perch.
In 2011, it may take some extra work to accomplish that task, but extra effort isn’t something the Hilltoppers have ever shied away from.
Los Alamos opens its 2011 season Saturday when it travels to the University of New Mexico Invitational. That meet, which has become Los Alamos’ traditional opening day event, usually attracts the top talent from around the state, a slate which includes the Hilltoppers’ arch-rival.
The Hilltoppers finished last year the same way they’d finished eight of the previous 10 years: as the runner-up in the Class 4A championship meet to Academy’s Chargers.
That string of victories by the Chargers, one of the most notable accomplishments by any program in any sport in New Mexico, was only interrupted in 2003 and 2007, both times by the Hilltoppers.
It could be a particular challenge for the Hilltoppers to keep pace with the Chargers, as all but one of their starters from the 2010 state meet are gone.
Los Alamos co-head coach Rob Hipwood said that his team’s dilemma isn’t an uncommon one around the state. Several teams in the state including Academy, are going into the season with new personnel.
And based on what Hipwood’s seen through the preseason, he feels confident the Hilltoppers will be able to compete at a high level once again.
“These guys are performing as one of the top teams in the state,” Hipwood said. “There are going to be periods where their inexperience shows, but when you have a lot of new guys, those things can happen.”
The Hilltoppers got a big boost of confidence at last week’s scrimmage against La Cueva. The Hilltoppers nipped La Cueva, the defending Class 5A champion and a team on the short list of top teams in 5A again this year, in last week’s unofficial score.
Los Alamos took six of the top 10 spots at the scrimmage in Albuquerque. The team was paced by junior Nick Hill’s time of 17:02.
The Hilltoppers’ most experienced returner is Alexander Romero, the lone senior on the team’s varsity roster.
Romero said the team is ready to get the season started, although he personally isn’t a big fan of the season-opening venue, the UNM North Golf Course.
“I don’t really like it,” he said. “It looks all the same to me. But it’s a fast course, that’s a good thing…I feel like we’re prepared.”
Romero finished 13th overall at the 2010 state meet, turning in a time of 16:40, third among the Hilltopper finishers.
Academy, for its part, placed three runners in the top 10 and five runners in the top 15, scoring 37 points. Los Alamos had 59 points, making it the only other team to finish with under 145 points at meet.
Saturday, Los Alamos will start Romero, Hill, Zak Kennison, Sean Reardon, Daniel Romero, Marcus Gutierrez and Orion Staples.
Working in the Hilltoppers’ favor is that they have several runners in reserve that they can call on in a pinch without losing much in the talent department. Los Alamos boasts at least 13 runners that could potentially see time at the varsity level this season, a number that’s enviable even among the top programs in the state.
“We’re excited about the boys,” Hipwood said. “They have a lot of energy and they’re excited that it’s their time and it’s their team.”
Los Alamos again has a competitive meet schedule in 2011, with dates at La Cueva, Academy, Rio Rancho and its home meet in late October. One of the season highlights is the Twilight Cross Country Festival in Phoenix at the end of the month.
“I feel good. I feel like the team’s going to go and give it their best,” Romero said. “Hopefully our best is satisfactory. We’re not really looking for anything special, we just want to see what we can do.”