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Few teams in the state are as hot as the Los Alamos Hilltoppers heading into the state Class 4A football playoffs.
To stay there, the Hilltoppers will have to remain just as hot.
Los Alamos will get its chance to prove its mettle Friday night when it takes on a tough Los Lunas Tigers squad. The two teams will meet in the opening round of the Class 4A playoffs at Willie Chavez Stadium in Los Lunas.
The Tigers (8-2) would’ve surely been a top-four seeded team this season had they been able to knock off cross-county rival Valencia in their final game of 2011. Instead, Valencia’s Jaguars won the 13-7 defensive struggle and earned the No. 3 seed.
There wasn’t a lot of doubt in Los Lunas head coach James Newton’s mind what the difference was between his team and Valencia’s in that contest: his team’s six turnovers.
Newton said despite the disappointing finish to the regular season, his team should be more than ready for the playoffs.
“All our district games were a lot like a playoff atmosphere,” he said. “A lot of teams wanted to get in and they were on the playoff bubble.”
Los Lunas, which defeated the Grants Pirates, another 4A entry into the playoffs, and the Belen Eagles, whose promising season ultimately spiraled out of control in late September, could be among the sleepers in the playoffs, especially if there are other upsets along the way.
Newton said that, despite the loss in its finale, his team will be feeling good about its chances heading in.
“We had a pretty successful season,” he said. “We had a couple of games that we lost that we felt like we should’ve won and could’ve won, but hopefully, we’ll keep going.”
One sure advantage the Tigers will have Friday is simple numbers.
The Tigers have 51 roster players just with assigned numbers heading into the playoffs – about a dozen others don’t have assigned numbers. Los Alamos has only 25 current roster players, a considerable chunk of those freshmen and sophomores.
One of those freshmen, however, is the Hilltoppers’ most exciting young player to debut in some time.
Jared Mang, who would’ve started the entire year for the Hilltoppers had a preseason concussion not kept him out of two games in the early season, but blossomed into an effective runner coming off the edges.
In recent weeks, Mang has seen fewer carries, partially due to Los Alamos’ playing mercy-rule shortened contests – it closed out Española Valley and Capital in four quarters and change – and partially due to the rise in the past few weeks of tailback Xavier Dennison, a sophomore who Los Alamos has been trying to get more involved in the offense.
Dennison, in limited action, rushed for over 100 yards against both Española Valley and Capital, racking up 112 yards in just four carries in the second quarter at Capital, actually outgaining Los Alamos’ top rusher, fullback Arnoldo Ortiz, who finished with 109 yards in about 14 minutes of play.
Despite Los Alamos’ prowess on the ground, it will only be as good Friday as its line play. That’s a challenge Los Alamos welcomes.
“I’m really looking forward to that,” said Los Alamos guard Grant Washburn. “I like this kind of game because it puts more pressure on the whole line to excel. That makes for a better game.”
The two teams should be plenty familiar with each other’s style of play.
Both teams like to keep the ball on the ground and both teams are fond of the quarterback option. The biggest difference is formation, as the Tigers like to employ I-back looks while the Hilltoppers work out of their pistol.
Los Alamos, which has won five contests in a row and six of its last seven heading into Friday night, has been on a roll on both sides of the ball. It racked up 212 points on its current winning streak, 108 of those in its last two games, while pitching three shutouts.
Despite the step-up in competition and the similarities between the teams, Hilltopper quarterback Danny Finn said he feels confident his team can sustain things.
“It’s going to be tougher, for sure,” Finn said. “But if we do what we were taught to do, stuff can happen. Our offensive line is doing a great of getting plays set up. They’re great.”
Los Alamos had an open week in the final week of the regular season, which head coach Garett Williams thought was beneficial by allowing the team to rest up and get over some nagging injuries.
In preparation, Los Alamos’ scout team ran offenses and defense in an attempt to simulate what it might see in potential playoff match-ups — the Hilltoppers didn’t know who they would face in the playoffs until Saturday night.
“We’re going to be able to run it up there,” Finn said. “We’ll fight hard. Defensively, we have a good idea about what they’re going to do. We’ll be prepared.”
The winner of Friday’s game will square off against fourth-seeded Artesia. Because Los Alamos’ and Artesia’s only playoff meeting was in Los Alamos, the Hilltoppers would have to travel to the Bulldog Bowl for that contest — the sites of quarterfinal and subsequent games are based on the history between the two teams involved and not on relative seeds.