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Two weeks ago against the Bloomfield Bobcats, the Los Alamos Hilltopper football team looked like it might be ready to turn a corner.
After a better-than-expected showing against Belen a week after that, the Hilltoppers got a big shot of confidence.
But even with those solid performances, few could’ve predicted what happened Friday night in the Hilltoppers’ Homecoming contest.
Los Alamos, going up against the No. 4-ranked team in Class 3A, the Albuquerque Academy Chargers, scored three unanswered touchdowns in the first half and held the Chargers, one of the top-rushing teams in the state, without an offensive touchdown for a 36-20 upset win at Sullivan Field.
Los Alamos dominated both sides of the line of scrimmage. Only Academy’s wingback Alex Harrison, one of the top rushers in the state, found much success against the Hilltopper defense, which held Academy to a meager 168 yards total offense.
“It was very physical, but as soon as we started popping them in the mouth, it started getting easier and easier,” said Hilltopper center Nate Robbins.
Robbins, who has anchored the Los Alamos offensive line for three seasons, helped to break big holes in the teeth of the Academy defense.
The big beneficiary of the offensive line’s play Friday was Arnoldo Ortiz, who had the biggest night of his career, rolling up 200 yards on the ground and scoring a touchdown.
With Los Alamos pinned down deep in its own territory after a rare third down punt by Academy late in the first quarter, Ortiz slipped through a crease right up the gut and bounced out to his left, going for 45 yards to midfield. One play later, Los Alamos quarterback Danny Finn hit Cory Geyer on a sideline route for a 50-yard touchdown.
Los Alamos’ performance Friday actually came as little surprise to Ortiz.
“We prepared all week for this game,” Ortiz said. “We watched film. The coaching staff really prepared for this game.”
Academy’s offense, which features a modified single wing look – a rarely-seen, ground-based offense which relies heavily on trickery to keep the defense guessing who has the ball – has been among the most effective in the state throughout the early part of the season. Friday night, however, the Hilltoppers never let the Chargers get much going.
Aside from Harrison, who had more than 700 yards in four games coming into the contest, no Academy ball carrier finished with better than 14 yards.
Harrison, however, proved to be considerably tougher to bring down, but started to wear down in the second half after carrying the ball 24 times and getting sacked by Grant Washburn in the fourth quarter.
Harrison finished with 139 yards rushing, but that was well below his season average.
“We talked about focusing on their keys,” said Hilltopper head coach Garett Williams after one of the biggest wins in his two years leading the program. “We weren’t worrying about their tricky stuff. We told them ‘if you read your keys, we’ll have a great night.’”
Academy actually struck first in the contest when it was ruled Finn had thrown a lateral pass attempt to wingback Jared Mang. The ball one-hopped toward Mang, but the bounce was picked up by Academy’s Kase Rattey who went 26 yards for the score.
While the Chargers (4-1) would put together several promising drives in the first half, most of them stalled around midfield. Their deepest penetration of the first half got them to the Hilltopper 25, but three straight incompletions, including a dropped potential touchdown toss from quarterback Louis Volk, resulted in a turnover on downs.
On fourth-and-9, linebacker David Knapp’s pressure up the middle forced Volk all the way to the sideline, only to throw a desperation pass out of bounds.
Academy managed to complete just one pass on the night, frustrated by Los Alamos’ pass rush – Washburn had a pair of sacks – and the much-improved play of the Hilltoppers’ secondary, which was a big question mark coming into 2011.
Friday’s victory immediately gives Los Alamos the status of team to beat in District 2-4A. The district season opens this week with Los Alamos hosting defending 2-4A champ Bernalillo.
Bernalillo has struggled this non-district season, including taking a 49-3 pounding by Academy earlier this month.
How has Los Alamos turned its fortunes around in a relatively short period of time?
“I have no idea,” Robbins said. “We kind of grew up overnight. We wanted to leave this season proud of what we’d done. We had a great week of practice, we’ve been executing during games. It went from there.”
Mang scored three times Friday, including a 46-yard run off another lateral pass from Finn, taking it down the right sideline early in the third quarter.
Mang finished with 84 yards on nine carries as Los Alamos (2-4) racked up 413 yards, its best offensive output of the 2011 season.
Academy’s other two scores came on kick returns, one by Harrison going 86 yards immediately after Mang’s 46-yard touchdown. Jake Newell ran back a return for 76 yards after Ortiz’s touchdown with 9:20 remaining in the game to put the Chargers back within two scores.
Academy recovered an onside kick following Newell’s runback and drove down to the Los Alamos 32, but another dropped Charger pass resulted in another turnover on downs.