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As is often the case, the Los Alamos Hilltopper girls soccer team will be the first to start the 2014 fall season at the high school.
Los Alamos is chock full of new, young faces heading into this season, not the least of which is its new head coach.
After leading the team for more than 20 years, longtime Hilltopper head coach Jiri Kubicek stepped down this past winter. Replacing Kubicek is AJ Herrera.
Herrera coached the Hilltopper boys program for a brief time. Most recently he was the head coach of the Santa Fe Demon boys program.
Last season, Santa Fe went 10-10 and had a chance to either qualify for a bid in the state Class 4A tournament or play spoiler for archrival Capital, but lost its season finale to the Jaguars, 5-0.
The 2014 preseason with the Hilltoppers, Herrera said, is going about as well as could be expected.
He said most of his players came into the preseason in good physical shape, which has allowed him to focus on development and working on plays as opposed to spending a lot of time on conditioning.
Los Alamos opens its season on the road, taking on the Farmington Scorpions. That game is set for Saturday at noon in Farmington.
“It’s so early in the season I haven’t been able to scout them,” Herrera said of the Scorpions. “We know they’re going to be tough, because they’re always tough. They’re expecting the same of us because we’re always tough, as well.”
In 2013, the last season for the team under Kubicek, the Hilltoppers had an off-year, relatively speaking. The Hilltoppers finished 10-11 overall and were bounced out of the Class 4A tournament in the opening round by the Piedra Vista Panthers — prior to last year, Los Alamos hadn’t failed to reach the semifinal round of the state tournament since moving up to Class 4A in 2000.
One of Los Alamos’ struggles last season was trying to keep from being one-dimensional on the offensive end, and that’s something it may have to contend with again this season, despite the fact that one dimension is one of the best in the state.
The Hilltoppers are led by all-state performer Catie McDonald up top. McDonald, now going into her junior year, was among the state’s leading scorers in 2013 with 29 goals — 44.6 percent of Los Alamos’ total goals scored — along with 9 assists.
No other Los Alamos player last season had more than 8 and the leading scorer other than McDonald returning to this year’s team is junior Charlotte Leonard who had 4 goals.
Graduating off last year’s team were some key figures, not the least of which were Catie’s older sister Meghan McDonald, who finished with a team-high 11 assists, and fullback Stephanie Blair, one of the top back-line players in the state during her career.
The 2014 roster is half underclassmen, including a pair of eighth graders. One of those eighth graders, Anna Lemke, is penciled in as the starter at goalkeeper, winning the job during the preseason.
McDonald will be joined up top by sophomore Abby Schmalz, the only other pure forward listed on the Hilltoppers’ roster, as well as Leonard and Sienna Ahlers, both of whom also play in the midfield.
Herrera said he’s still ironing out who will be starting where this season. While his midfield and defensive players are young, many of them were up with the varsity in 2013, including fullbacks Jessica Heironimus and Cory Carnes, both senior captains.
Following Saturday’s game with Farmington, Los Alamos will have another challenging nondistrict schedule in preparation for the postseason — even with the addition of Del Norte to Los Alamos’ district lineup, it’s unlikely the Hilltoppers will be seriously challenged in their quest for an eighth straight district title.
Los Alamos will open its home season Tuesday against a solid Bosque School, then follow that up with a rematch against Piedra Vista Aug. 30, a date with Mayfield in the first round of the Albuquerque Academy tournament Sept. 11, and its two games against two of Class 5A’s elite, St. Pius X Sept. 2 and Academy Sept. 16, both on the road.
“We have a monster schedule during the first eight games of the year,” Herrera said. “It’s going to show us what we need to work on in preparation for the state tournament. At the end of the day, we’re getting ready to peak at the right time. We want to go to the state tournament in full force. The first eight games will show us where we’re at and what we need to work on. I’m excited for it.”