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ALBUQUERQUE — It’s been a long time coming. Twenty-four years to be exact.
But Saturday night in front of a packed house at the Albuquerque Public Schools Soccer Complex, the 2010 version of the Los Alamos Hilltopper boys soccer team pulled off what so many other teams before it had tried to do and not succeeded.
The Hilltoppers hoisted the championship trophy.
“It’s so unbelievable,” Los Alamos forward Paul Hemez said. “Especially after going through Academy and St. Pius. I can’t describe it. It’s an amazing feeling with everyone coming together on the team and doing a great job.”
Los Alamos, the No. 5 seed coming into the state Class AAAA championship tournament, dispatched three tough opponents in a row, two of them among the most storied boys soccer programs in the state, to earn the state title.
The last state title for the Hilltoppers came in 1986.
Los Alamos earned just its second state title in team history with the victory — prior to it being a sanctioned interscholastic sport in New Mexico, the Hilltoppers also won a soccer title in the late 1970s.
“All you hear about is St. Pius and 12 state championships, but if you look at us, we took it to them,” Hilltopper fullback Graham Delano said.
Los Alamos dispatched Albuquerque Academy, St. Pius and its final opponent, second-seeded Belen, to grab the title.
It was an impressive tournament run by the Hilltoppers, culminating in a dominant performance over the Belen Eagles, who came boasted one of the most prolific offenses in the state during the regular season.
Los Alamos, however, held the Eagles to just one goal, that coming early in the second half after dominating the first half. Los Alamos scored three goals in the first half Saturday night, then added another late in the contest to take a 4-1 victory.
Nicholas Castaño, Cooper Christensen, Hemez and Andy Thoma all picked up scores for the Hilltoppers Saturday in the finale, with Thoma also earning a pair of assists.
It was an offensive frenzy sparked by Thoma, who shredded the Belen defense all night, running virtually at-will through the Belen back line to set up several scoring chances throughout the contest.
To break the scoreless tie in the 25th minute, Thoma launched a corner kick almost even with the far post.
Castaño went straight up and headed it in past Belen’s solid goalkeeper Orlando Pina.
Pina made several acrobatic stops Saturday, but was forced to make several of those stops due to the precious little help he got from the Eagles’ defensive third of the field.
With the Eagles still scrambling following Castaño’s 25th-minute goal, the Hilltoppers struck again. The Hilltoppers worked the ball down to the Eagles penalty box with the Eagles struggling to clear it.
With the ball bouncing around near the goal, Christensen moved in from the top of the box and banged a shot past Pina who was scurrying around trying to grab the loose ball.
In several games during the regular season, including a pair of losses to Academy’s chargers and St. Pius’ Sartans, the Hilltoppers felt they were right there with both teams but could just never get over that final hump.
That problem never surfaced during the 2010 playoffs, however.
“When we saw where we were ranked in this tournament, we knew we had to play two good teams, if we could make it that far,” Hemez said. “We played our best all three games. That’s how we won this tournament.”
The win might have been sweetest of all for Los Alamos head coach Evan Gartz, who choked up as he saw the blue championship trophy lifted high in the air by his team.
Gartz and his family came up through the program.
Under his direction, the team reached the state championship game for each of the past two seasons.
Los Alamos fell to Farmington in 2009 in the state title game.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “Being a player in this program, I’m so happy. We tried to bring confidence to this team each year and we got through.”
Los Alamos 1, St. Pius X 0
Thoma scored the game-winning goal with about 13 minutes in regulation, but the star of the game was the Hilltopper defense.
Los Alamos’ back line of Delano, Matt Leslie and Zeke Zumbro took the powerful Sartan offense right out of its game. The Sartans got very few coordinated offense attacks throughout the contest and the Hilltopper fullbacks were almost invariably in the right places in the right times to get right into the Sartans’ passing lanes when the ball crossed midfield.
It was a huge upset for the Hilltoppers against the top-seeded Sartans, who have for the past decade been the preeminent power in Class AAAA boys soccer but have now failed for two straight seasons to make the championship game after winning seven straight AAAA titles between 2002-2008.
Zumbro, in particular, shined in Friday night’s semifinal. Zumbro was charged with the unenviable task of marking St. Pius’ most dangerous forward, Nate Pacheco, who finished as the second most prolific scorer in the classification during the regular season.
But Pacheco, thanks largely to Zumbro’s efforts, was a non-factor in the contest except in the final desperation minutes after Thoma’s goal.
That lone goal of the contest came off a flip throw-in by Castaño. With Castaño throwing in from about 30 yards away from the Sartan goal, his toss went almost directly toward the middle of the goal mouth.
St. Pius’ stalwart goalkeeper, Eliot Farmer, left the goal to attempt to punch the throw-in away, but missed the ball completely and the ball grazed off the top of Thoma’s head and in the goal.