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Heading into their home opening meet, the Los Alamos Hilltopper swimming and diving teams feel good about their chances to win it.
But the Hilltoppers are told many times throughout the season that it’s all about how they finish.
Los Alamos’ boys and girls teams will be at home Friday and Saturday for the Los Alamos Invitational. The meet, which will take place at the Larry R. Walkup Aquatic Center, will hold diving competition at 5 p.m. Friday, then will have swimming competition starting 10 a.m. Saturday.
Both Hilltopper teams are relatively young this season, the boys more so than the girls, but Hilltopper head coach Rusty Bernstein — who will be in his first year of guiding the team by himself, former co-head coach Cindy Black stepped down toward the end of the 2009-10 season — thinks that the teams could still be competitive come state championship time in February.
“The boys, maybe could or should be potentially in the top 10,” he said. “We lost six of our top swimmers from last year, but we’ve got some new kids on the boys side…on the girls side, it’s pretty early to tell, but top five (at state) is something we could do.”
Both teams finished in the top four at state last season, with the girls finishing as the state runner-up behind Albuquerque Academy.
Academy and Los Alamos have been the two top programs in the state since 1970. Recently, however, Academy has been the undisputed champion of the sport, winning four straight boys titles and nine of the last 11 — Los Alamos won the other two in 2004 and 2005 — and four of the last five girls titles. Los Alamos’ last girls state championship came in 2004.
Among the girls team’s top returners this season is Natalia Moore. Moore, a junior, had top five finishes at the state meet last season in both the 200-yard individual medley and 100-yard butterfly, as well as helping the 200 medley relay and 200 freestyle relay teams to top four finishes.
However, Moore ran cross country this past fall and was injured during the season. Initially, it looked like she might not be back in the pool before January and her ability to contribute beyond doing an occasional relay leg was in doubt, but has recently started participating in swimming workouts and could be back to full strength prior to February.
Last season, Los Alamos was also touting two promising young eighth graders on its girls squad, Ashlynn Bennett and Kerry Song, both of whom are also returning this season. Bennett, in fact, has already qualified for state in two events, the 100 and 200 freestyles. Bennett picked up state cut times in the events while leading off her team at the Nov. 20 Barney Relays, hosted by Academy.
Los Alamos’ girls finished as the runners-up in team competition at the Barney Relays, which include the top finishing teams at the previous season’s state met. Los Alamos’ boys were third at that same event, although Bernstein said they were without five swimmers that could’ve scored points for them.
Also picking up an early state cut time for Los Alamos at the relay event were Maria Venneri in the 100 backstroke, the girls 200 and 400 freestyle relay teams and the boys 400 freestyle relay team.
On the boys side, Los Alamos is hoping for contributions this season from Michael Moore. Although he’s swimming as an eighth grader, Bernstein said he could have an impact as the season goes along and he picks up meet experience.
In diving, Los Alamos will go into the season with several returners on the girls side and its lone boy diver, Josh Wilcox, also back.
It remains to be seen, however, if the teams will be able to stave off distraction surrounding head diving coach Keith Greene’s arrest Oct. 22 on suspicion of driving while intoxicated.
Greene, who has been with the diving program for several years, is scheduled to appear in a pre-trial hearing Dec. 15.
Los Alamos’ top returning diver from last season is sophomore Amy Neal. Neal was 10th overall at the state meet, earning a score of 246.15.
For Saturday’s meet, 14 teams are expected to attend, including both Rio Rancho schools, which have been solid competitors in recent seasons, as well as St. Michael’s and other schools from around the area.
Bernstein said he hasn’t completely decided how strong a lineup he wants to put together for Saturday, not to mention the fact that several swimmers will be unavailable. However, he said he feels confident the girls can get their 200 medley relay team qualified.