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It was one of the crowning moments in the history of Los Alamos High School boys soccer.
In 2010, the Los Alamos Hilltoppers thumped the Belen Eagles in the Class 4A championship game, 4-0, to claim its first state title in 24 years.
But that was then and this is now. With nine seniors, most of them starters, graduating from that team it would seem unlikely the 2011 Hilltoppers will be in the same position to contend.
Or is it? The Hilltoppers don’t seem to think so.
“I feel like we’re confident this year,” Hilltopper Zeke Zumbro said during practice Tuesday as the team preps for its season opener Thursday. “Last year, we were really confident and I feel the same confidence this year.”
Thursday, Los Alamos will play at home, which, at least for the moment, is Dara Jones Field in White Rock. Los Alamos has two big contests in its opening week, Thursday’s game against a tough Class 5A opponent, Rio Rancho, then a game against what could be its biggest obstacle to a repeat performance, the Farmington Scorpions.
The Hilltoppers are a new-look squad, to be sure, but they’re not pulling any punches about what they feel are their chances at a repeat performance.
“We’re good,” Los Alamos’ David Stroud said. “Call it arrogance, call it what you want, but we’re good. We have some young players with talent and older guys with a lot of experience.”
Hilltopper head coach Evan Gartz, who guided Los Alamos to its 2010 state title, said there are still some question marks in terms of personnel, but he thinks after the newbies get some games under their belt, the team will be solid from top to bottom.
The Hilltoppers’ first mission will be to find scoring. Andy Thoma, the Class 4A Player of the Year in 2010, guided the offense and players like Paul Hemez and David Wyman helped finish, but those scoring threats are gone.
However, in last season’s playoffs, Cooper Christian picked up some key goals in big situations. He will be upfront along with newcomer Ryan Maestas.
Gartz said the two could make the most prolific scoring tandem he’s ever coached.
“Every year we’ve had good scorers but not a good tandem,” he said. “It’s going to be fun to watch. Zeke’s going to be center-mid. We’ll be able to get some goals.”
Another Hilltopper to watch this season could be Henry Steinkamp, whom goalkeeper Lorenzo Venneri called “the best player I’ve ever played with here.” Steinkamp is listed as a forward and the Hilltoppers have high hopes he can assist the offense.
Los Alamos, which has had talented teams in the past, has often been relegated to the status of also-ran behind Class 4A powerhouses St. Pius X and Albuquerque Academy.
While both of those teams will almost certainly be among the final eight teams standing again this season, it will be the Hilltoppers who will enter the season with a No. 1 ranking in the state.
However, Saturday’s game at Farmington could be more telling than a poll how the two teams stack up. Farmington, the 2009 state champion, is among the most veteran, seasoned teams in the state and is probably the favorite to win the District 1-4A title and earn a berth into the 2011 playoffs.
Belen, which still has a prolific offense similar to the one that carried it to the title game last season, could also make a run this season and Gartz said he’s keeping an eye on Atrisco Heritage, which has gotten some buzz during the preseason.
It is noteworthy, Gartz said, that many of the potential top contenders this year are public schools. It has been only public schools in each of the past two championship games – Los Alamos lost to Farmington in the 2009 finale – while St. Pius and Albuquerque Academy, both private schools, had dominated 4A for virtually the entire decade prior to 2009.
Many people thought the 2009 playoffs were an anomaly with neither St. Pius’ Sartans or Academy’s Chargers in the final, but with Los Alamos topping Belen in 2010, Stroud feels there has been a shift in the balance of power.
“St. Pius had been the team with a dynasty,” Stroud said. “Now it seems that dynasty is on its way out and ours is on the way in. Los Alamos doesn’t quite have a big rivalry school, but if it did, it’s St. Pius.”
As on the offensive side, Los Alamos lost big performers on the defensive third, not the least of which was All-State performer Graham Delano, who is playing this year for Colorado Christian.
Venneri, who finished 2010, his first year with the team, with a .881 goals-against average, third-best in Class 4A, said there’s been some experimentation with personnel in the preseason but he’s sure the defense, when it’s settled, will be just fine.
“They’re all new and most of them didn’t play at all last year, but they’re big and they’re fast,” said Venneri. “They can make mistakes, but they can still recover.”
At some point this season, Los Alamos will be playing on a new surface at Sullivan Field. Sullivan Field is getting a makeover, replacing the grass surface with an artificial surface. The team is generally looking forward to the change, which will have it playing regularly on a similar surface to the one the playoffs are played on in Albuquerque.
Head coach: Evan Gartz (5th year)
Assistant coaches: Stephen Bolivar, Avery Neal, Ifeatu Oboli, Rob Wilde
* District 2-4A game
Aug. 25: vs. Rio Rancho, 4 p.m.
Aug. 27: at Farmington, noon.
Sept. 2-3: Louie Cernicek Invite, TBA.
Sept. 5: vs. St. Michael’s, 6 p.m.
Sept. 8-10: at Albuquerque Academy Invite, TBA.
Sept. 13: at La Cueva, 6:30 p.m.
Sept. 16: at Albuquerque Academy, 4 p.m.
Sept. 20: vs. Bernalillo, 4 p.m.*
Sept. 22: vs. Eldorado, 6 p.m.
Sept. 24: at Santa Fe, 1 p.m.*
Sept. 29: at Piedra Vista, 3 p.m.
Oct. 1: vs. Capital, 1 p.m.*
Oct. 6: at St. Pius X, 4:30 p.m.
Oct. 8: at Bernalillo, 1 p.m.*
Oct. 11: vs. Santa Fe, 4 p.m.*
Oct. 18: at Capital, 4 p.m.*