'Toppers, Sartans meet in opener

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By Mike Cote

If the Los Alamos Hilltopper volleyball team doesn’t have a home away from home picked out yet, it might as well do so now.

Los Alamos will be on the road quite a bit in 2013, particularly in the early season, starting with Tuesday’s season opener against its bitter rival.

The new-look Hilltoppers are preparing to make their debut on the road against the St. Pius X Sartans. And there is some history there.

St. Pius, one of the premier squads in Class 4A, has knocked Los Alamos out of the state playoffs each of the past five years, including in its last match of 2012.

The Hilltoppers are hoping to reverse that trend starting this season. And they’re hoping to do it with a different lineup than the one that has carried them deep into the playoffs for three straight years.

Among the new faces around the Hilltoppers is head coach Robin Reynolds. Reynolds, a former C team coach with the program, said he’s learned quite a bit in his first preseason with the team and is sure that will continue as 2013 progresses.

“Our theme is change,” Reynolds said. “They have had Garry (Maskaly) for four years, now they have a new head coach and a new assistant. We’ve lost Savanah (Romero), we’ve lost Danielle (Ortiz), so we had to change our back row, our defense and our offensive system.”

Ortiz, who had been the team’s top defensive specialist and who’s worn the libero jersey for two years, is playing with the University of New Mexico Lobos this season. Romero was a three-year starter at setter for the Hilltoppers and the offense ran primarily through her.

Getting a new setter in to learn Reynolds’ system was the primary goal of this offseason. Heading in, they’ve settled on a setting rotation that includes sophomore Sam Melton, junior Rhese Beevers and senior Michaela Pigue.
The Hilltoppers’ goal with the three setters is to get a more passers involved and, ultimately show some different looks to teams when they need to. The Hilltoppers will still feature the base offense with a setter upfront distributing to its returning middles Sam Fenner and Claire Stewart, or Brianna Montaño, its returning sophomore on the outside.

Melton was called in under dire circumstances last season, when Romero injured her wrist in the Hilltoppers’ quarterfinal round match against St. Pius, despite having just a limited number of touches throughout 2012.

Los Alamos went on to drop that match 3-0 to end its year.

During the regular season, Los Alamos posted a 17-7 overall record, including an 8-1 mark in District 2-4A play, taking both the regular season and district tournament crowns.

St. Pius is the defending Class 4A champion. It stunned Piedra Vista, the tallest team in the state and the hands-down favorite to win it all, in the 2012 championship match, taking a 3-2 victory.

Reynolds said he’s been busy looking at video of the Sartans in recent days and has a pretty good idea what to expect.

“They go hard to the outside,” he said. “They like to push it down the line. If the block comes over late, they begin working on the opposite side of the block.”

Following Tuesday’s opener, Los Alamos will take on another old foe, Pojoaque Valley, Sept. 10. The following night, Los Alamos will make its one and only home appearance in the month of September, that coming against St. Michael’s.

Its only other nondistrict home appearance is set for Oct. 3 against Class 4A Albuquerque Academy.

Along with the new setting trio, returning senior Allyssa Tedder will take over the libero duties – she will also be primarily responsible for setting up the offense and defense – and will be helped in the back by senior Venessa Martinez.

On the front, Stewart, who finished with 163 kills in 2012 and Fenner, who added 134, provided a solid attack in the middle, but Stewart could also look to rotate to the outside. Montaño, who has a powerful stroke, is trying new techniques at the other outside position which Reynolds said will put a totally different wrinkle into her game.

Montaño, who was highly touted as a freshman and has the best kill total (191) of any returning player, had a busy summer, working with a traveling club team from Española which traveled to a national championship tournament in Florida.
That club team was comprised largely of players from the Española Valley Sundevils, who figure to be the Hilltoppers’ chief rival in their quest for another 2-4A crown.