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'Toppers struggle in state pool play

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By Mike Cote

ALBUQUERQUE — It was not the kind of start to the state tournament Los Alamos was hoping for.The Hilltopper volleyball team managed just one win in its six contests Wednesday during the pool play round of the state Class AAAA volleyball tournament.That put Los Alamos at the bottom of Pool C among the four other pool teams.However, finishing fourth will mean Los Alamos will face a familiar foe in today’s first round. Los Alamos was scheduled to meet up with Espaola Valley, which finished third in Pool A. That game, which was scheduled for midmorning today, hadn’t concluded by press time.Should Los Alamos pick up a victory against its District 2AAAA rival — the Hilltoppers beat the Sundevils in two of their three regular season meetings this season — it would go on to play in tonight’s semifinal round against Goddard, the winner of Wednesday’ Pool B competition.Hilltopper head coach Diana Stokes said beating the Sundevils a third time wouldn’t be that easy, despite her team’s decisive victories in their last two meetings.“They want revenge,” Stokes said of the Sundevils. “They want to beat us. The pros of playing them again are that we know all their weaknesses, but they know all of mine, too. The cons are the girls getting overconfident.”Wednesday was pretty disappointing all around for Los Alamos.Los Alamos struggled in its Pool C opener Wednesday against the Shiprock Chieftans, but bounced back to take the second game and clinched what might have been a big tiebreaker by two points.However, the Chieftans would steal a game from their District 1AAAA rival, Kirtland Central, to secure the third seed coming out of Pool C.The two games between Los Alamos and Shiprock would be decided more by attrition than anything else, with each team committing a copious amount of unforced errors.Los Alamos struggled to get its potent offense going in either game, earning only a grand total of seven spike kills against the Chieftans, the 10th seed in Class AAAA.The Chieftans grabbed the first game win 21-17, but the Hilltoppers took game two 21-15. With tiebreaking procedures, those two points ended up being huge.In their second pool play contest of the day, the ’Toppers dropped both ends of their match with Kirtland Central’s Broncos, 21-17, 21-14.In the nightcap, Los Alamos did little against the fourth-seeded St. Pius X Sartans. The Sartans easily dispatched the Hilltoppers in two, 21-7, 21-11.Following Wednesday’s play, Los Alamos was struggling to figure out what had gone wrong.“I don’t know,” Los Alamos outside hitter Katie Sheppard said. “We’re not communicating very well. We need to relax a little bit more. We were kind of playing on our heels. We need to step it up.”The Hilltoppers made it very difficult for themselves from the get-go, committing 17 unforced errors against the Chieftans in their opener — pool play games run only to 21 points.Los Alamos fell behind by as much as 16-8, but clawed its way back into game one with a couple of crucial points during libero Vanessa Espinoza’s serve. Espinoza’s line drive at 18-13 forced Shiprock into a free ball, setting up a Kristina Little spike kill.A Shiprock unforced error — the Chieftans had seven of their own to open — put Los Alamos within 18-14.The Chieftans had little to offer on offense, earning only five spike kills in the two games, but played solid defense throughout and kept the pressure on the Hilltopper offense to produce.After a slow start to the second game, Los Alamos would take the lead with a Megan Burditt ace serve at 8-7.Los Alamos would eventually open a 20-11 lead with Taylor Ealey and Jessica Stokes providing some punch at the net.But the Chieftans would make it interesting, reeling off four straight points late before Ealey’s tip kill to conclude the second game.Little had three spike kills against Shiprock to lead Los Alamos. Jamie Pioche had two spike kills — both in game two — to lead Shiprock.Against Kirtland Central, Los Alamos also started off slow, committing eight unforced errors in game one, but for the most part, it wouldn’t be a problem.The ’Toppers led for much of game one, jumping out to a big 14-7 lead with Little serving three straight points.But the Broncos, a skilled defensive squad with a potent one-two combination of middle Ali Hathaway and outside April Christie, would reel off 14 of the next 17 points to finish the Hilltoppers in game one.Again, Los Alamos couldn’t get much going offensively beyond a couple of short spurts. The ’Toppers finished with three spike kills in the first game, one each by Stokes, Little and Katie Sheppard. Emma Myers and Ealey added a pair of block kills.Los Alamos wouldn’t be able to hang around with the pool’s top seed in the second game, however, never leading after the opening point of the game.Little had a pair of spike kills, a tip kill and a block kill for the Hilltoppers, but that would be the vast majority of the offense the ’Toppers would muster in the second game.Hathaway would finish with four spike kills, while Jerilyn Curtis picked up a spike kill and a block kill for the Broncos.Just before Los Alamos’ match with St. Pius, Kirtland Central and Shiprock played one another, with Los Alamos still holding a two-point edge in the tiebreaker.However, the Chieftans, after being up 22-21 in the first game before falling on a Hathaway block kill and a questionable over-the-net call — games were capped at 23 points — the Chieftans held on for a 21-19 win in the second game.Going into its match with the Sartans, the Hilltoppers knew they would have to win at least one game to finish any better than fourthBut the ’Toppers were hammered by the Sartan big girls up front early, and they never stopped.The Hilltoppers simply had no answer for the Sartans at the net, who spread the ball around very well.“(St.) Pius hadn’t played that well until they played us,” Stokes said. “Against us, Pius played a lot better.”St. Pius’ 6-foot-1 middle hitter Jordan Unverzagt had five crushing spike kills in the two games, and outside hitter Jordan Sandoval finished with three, all in the first game.Little had four block kills in the match.Sheppard said afterward her team needed some time to regroup in preparation for Thursday’s single-elimination play.“We’re going to shake this off,” she said. “We’ll have a good team meeting (Wednesday) and hopefully, we’ll get back to how we played against Capital and Espaola.”