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The latter half of November not only means Thanksgiving in northern New Mexico, but the start of prep basketball season as well.
Los Alamos is no exception, as the Hilltoppers open their 2008-09 season Tuesday. The Hilltoppers tip-off for the first time Tuesday at Kirtland Central.
The first few weeks of the season could be very telling for the Hilltoppers, as they have several contests scheduled with some very good competition including some tough squads in Class AAAA.
Los Alamos will also have a chance to see how life treats it without a pair of key players from last season, the backcourt tandem of twin brothers Ben and Nik Allen, who have both graduated.
Hilltopper head coach Alan Kirk, who returns for his sixth season, said the first few games will give him a better idea of what combination of starters and what substitution patterns he’s going to want to use.
“There’s a lot up in the air,” Kirk said. “The thing we need to focus on is how we play, what we do. This time of the year what you want to do is play tough competition, work everyday to improve. It’s about putting in your system and looking at where you’re going to find mismatches.”
The Hilltoppers have two returning starters from last season, both of whom spent the majority of their minutes in and around the key.
Michael Helland is back for his senior season, while the team’s 6-foot-10 star, Alex Kirk, returns for his junior year.
This offseason has been an eventful one for Kirk, who emerged as one of the top players in the state as a sophomore in 2007-08.
Kirk has been rated by several scouting outlets, most notably ESPN.com, as one of the top big men in the country. He added another inch of height and put on 30 pounds of muscle in the weight room.
Kirk will be the centerpiece of the Hilltopper offense, although coach Kirk hopes to develop scoring threats around him, which the team will need to do to make a run toward a state title in what could be a wide-open Class AAAA.
At least five teams appear to have a legitimate shot at a state title and perhaps another five could be dangerous if they get hot at the right time.
Kirk said one team that’s on his short list of competitors is Deming, the team Los Alamos knocked out in the first round of last season’s playoffs.
Deming’s Wildcats were good spot shooters and played strong defense and will have virtually all its key personnel back this season.
Artesia, with Derek Montoya, one of the most dangerous players in the state, could make a serious run, while Roswell and Belen have gotten some early season buzz, as well.
Los Alamos, meanwhile, will be looking to improve on its 19-11 mark from last season. It advanced to the state quarterfinals before falling to eventual champion St. Pius X.
At the guard positions, three players with varsity experience will be returning this season. Doug Hardy put in some key minutes last year, while Zach Parks and Jack Russell will also be pushing for playing time.
“I think it’s going to be interesting,” Kirk said. “We’re going to have to develop that good guard play. All the guards have big shoes to fill...but these guys have been very patient for the last 2-1/2 years waiting their turn.”
Newcomer Dominique Sugar-Smith, a senior, has shown promise in preseason workouts, as have John Chalmers and Rogelio Anaya. Anaya and Chalmers are both juniors.
With football season ending Saturday, Kirk said he could be getting another five or more players to the program. Only eight were on the team’s preseason roster.
Among those will be junior Austin Wolstein.
Wolstein, a mid-season call-up in 2007-08, turned in some big minutes and put in some big buckets during the District 2AAAA season.
Kirtland Central, which will get its football players back following the Broncos’ loss in the AAAA playoffs, doesn’t have a lot of height on its preseason roster.
Its tallest listed player comes in at 6-1.
What Kirtland Central has or doesn’t have at this point isn’t the Hilltoppers’ biggest concern going into Tuesday’s game.
“We’ve got to work on consistency, hold down turnovers, just being a consistent team” Kirk said. “During the preseason, sometimes we’ve had good efforts and sometimes we’ve slipped back. We want to develop a consistent performance.”
Following Tuesday’s opener, Los Alamos will travel to Santa Fe Saturday night. From there, it takes on AAAA opponents Moriarty, Farmington, Belen, Volcano Vista and St. Pius in the coming weeks.
It opens what could be another brutal District 2AAAA season Jan. 21 against Taos.
Los Alamos finished 5-4 in 2AAAA play last season, taking third in both the regular season and the district tournament.