Trio of ’Toppers will head to Colorado

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Kao, Riciputi, Weeks continue athletic careers at the college level

By Mike Cote

While Colorado has long been a favorite destination spot for tourists, it has seemingly become a favorite spot for Los Alamos High School standout athletes to participate in intercollegiate sports.

In a ceremony Thursday afternoon at LAHS’ media center, three Hilltopper standout athletes were on hand to celebrate their signing of National Letters of Intent to continue their athletic careers in Colorado.

Shaina Riciputi signed to play women’s soccer at Colorado Springs’ Colorado College, Emi Weeks inked to compete in track and field for the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs and Sammi Kao signed to swim for Adams State College in Alamosa.

With their three commitments, the number of Hilltopper athletes that will compete in college-level athletics in Colorado next season was raised to six — Kelsey Neal, Holly Walker and Alex Nichols of LAHS will also take part in Colorado intercollegiate athletics.

Riciputi, Weeks and Nichols will also just be across town from each other, with all of them playing in the Colorado Springs area.

Sammi Kao

According to the band Chicago, “everybody needs a little time away from each other.” Such was the case of Sammi Kao and competitive swimming.

Kao, who was one of the Hilltopper swimming program’s most promising athletes in her three previous years, decided she needed a respite her senior year and didn’t compete for the Hilltoppers.

It was a case, she said, of getting near burn-out level, particularly after a grinding summer club swimming season, which she said ended OK for her but not quite as well as she’d hoped.

While she attended several club events, those combined with the prep season might have been just a hair too much.

In her junior season, 2008-09, Kao finished fifth in the 200-yard freestyle at the state championship meet and took sixth in the 100 butterfly, as well as helping the 200 medley relay team to a top six finish.

With Kao’s help, the team finished fourth in the final state standings.

Adams State, a popular destination for Hilltopper athletes over the years, actually wasn’t Kao’s first choice of colleges. Kao said she was looking long and hard at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas’ program before her visit to ASC in November changed her mind.

“The coach called me up and asked me if I wanted to take a recruiting trip,” Kao said. “With the coach I was a lot more comfortable.”

The women’s swimming and diving team at ASC — a fledgling program founded just last year — is headed by 24-year-old Rebecca Sturdy.

“She’s really motivating,” Kao said of Sturdy, who was herself a college standout at Texas A&M. “She set out the goals she wanted me to achieve. That was more than what UNLV was offering me.”

As much as Sturdy influenced Kao’s final decision, so did ASC’s workout facilities — which include a brand new gymnasium — and its small class size.

ASC competes in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference in the NCAA’s Division-II.

This season, ASC’s roster was comprised entirely of true or redshirt freshman, at least one of which Kao has competed against at the prep level, Jessica Palacio, a former St. Pius X standout.

Kao said she will likely compete in individual medley, butterfly and freestyle events in college.

While she said she’s glad to have her immediate future mapped out, the college search experience was actually something that she didn’t find disagreeable.

“It wasn’t grueling at all,” Kao said. “But it’s a lot of work. There’s a lot of paperwork to fill out.”

Shaina Riciputi

For a team looking to shore up its defense, Colorado College could certainly have done a lot worse than recruiting Shaina Riciputi.

Riciputi, one of the top fullbacks in the state of New Mexico for the last two seasons, could find a spot right away playing for Colorado College’s Tigers.

Colorado College is a small, liberal arts school in Colorado Springs. The under 2,000 population school competes in Division I in just two sports: men’s hockey and women’s soccer.

Despite playing in Conference USA with other larger schools like Rice, Houston and UTEP, the Tigers finished with an impressive conference record of 8-2-1 in 2009 and advanced to the C-USA championship tournament before bowing out to Memphis.

“It’s a very competitive program,” Riciputi said. “They always finish in the top few in the conference. The coaches are definitely looking to build the program.”

Colorado College is coached by Geoff Bennett, who has headed the program for six seasons, compiling a record of 66-38-13 during that time.

While the Tigers put together a solid season in 2009, they did so without the aid of a true fullback, a fact which makes Riciputi a valuable pick-up.

In 2009, Riciputi was picked as a second-team All-Class AAAA defender, helping to anchor the top-ranked defense in the state.

Riciputi moved to Los Alamos from Oak Ridge, Tenn., before her sophomore season in 2007 and quickly found her way into the starting lineup, where she’s been ever since.

She said she was thrilled about having a chance with Colorado College to continue her soccer career.

“I’ve been playing soccer for so long,” Riciputi said. “I knew I’d play in some form in college. Going forward, I hope I’ll be able to step up my game even more at the college level.”

Despite spending the majority of her prep career in the back, Riciputi spent a fair amount of time upfront for the Hilltoppers in 2009, scoring 16 goals, the best total on the team and handing out 13 assists, the third-best total.

Riciputi took her official visit in February. While there, she got to see the men’s hockey team play its cross-town rival, Air Force and generally had a good time.

Colorado College operates on a block academic schedule, something that also appealed to Riciputi. Students take one intensive 3-1/2 week course at a time before moving on to another course.

Riciputi said she’ll keep working out throughout the summer in preparation for the season. Official workouts start Aug. 5 and the team’s first game is slated for Aug. 27.

Emily Weeks

Deficit spending wasn’t the way that Emily Weeks wanted to go.

Weeks, a standout track and field athlete for Los Alamos, was interested in schools in the southern California and South Carolina area, but found that heading out to the East or West Coast might be a financial burden.

Instead, Weeks chose to head to a slightly cooler climate and less-stringent financial area by picking the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs. Weeks is looking to compete for the team in both the indoor and outdoor track and field seasons next academic year.

“It feels good to be committed,” Weeks said. “After all this time deciding where to go, it feels good now that I know where I’m going.”

UCCS competes in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference in Division-II.

Prior to her advancing to the collegiate level, however, Weeks said she has some unfinished business to resolve.

Weeks is one of the top returning prep athletes in New Mexico and has already had a solid senior season heading into this weekend’s Albuquerque Academy Invitational. So far in 2010, she’s qualified for the state Class AAAA championship meet in the 100 meter, 200 meter and long jump events.

Weeks is the reigning AAAA 200 meter champion and finished as the state runner-up in the

100 and long jump. On top of that, she was the high-point athlete at the 2009 state meet, racking up 21.5 total points.

Despite her win in the 200 last season, her event, without question, is the long jump.

As a junior, Weeks broke the Hilltopper school record, going 17 feet,

7 inches. Her goal this year, however, is to eclipse the 18-foot mark, preferably at the state meet, where the Class AAAA state record stands at 17 feet, 10-1/4 inches.

In 2010, Weeks has recorded the longest regular season jump in AAAA, 17-4 1/4.

Weeks’ climb to the top of the Hilltopper charts is something her coaches at LAHS have helped her with every step of the way.

“Ever since I was a freshman, I’ve improved so much,” she said. “We’re lucky to have the coaching staff that we have. Their experience and skills have brought me to what I’m capable of doing now.”

UCCS, Weeks said, has a friendly coaching staff that said made her feel very welcomed when she visited the school last month.

Weeks could be a good addition to UCCS, which has to take on Division-II heavyweights Adams State and Western State in RMAC competition.