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Boys’ cross country earns state championship

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By Phil Scherer

For the first time in four years, the Los Alamos High School cross country boys are back on top of the mountain. Saturday in Rio Rancho, the Hilltoppers narrowly won the state championship over Albuquerque Academy 42-49, earning LAHS its seventh title. 

Nothing about the journey to the championship was easy, starting all the way back in June. Due to fire restrictions in Los Alamos County, all of the trails the team would normally use to train were closed, forcing them into new workouts and training regimens. 

“We had to get really creative, and both groups, boys and girls, were all in,” said Kathy Hipwood, who coaches the Hilltoppers along with her husband Rob. 

Despite the adversity, the boys were committed to becoming as good as possible. In 2016 and 2017, the Hilltoppers finished in third place at state. Though that would be considered a success at most schools, LAHS is different. Prior to those third place finishes, the Hilltoppers had finished no lower than second place at the state meet since 1997. 

“It took commitment starting in June,” Kathy Hipwood said. “More than there has been in the last few years, the group decided they wanted to do everything they could to make it happen. Some of the boys really came on in the track season, and that really motivated them.”

The training paid off, and the Hilltoppers had a strong regular season, which was marked by remarkable depth. LAHS’ top three runners, Rafael Sanchez, Duncan Fuehne and Steven Strevell were near the top at every meet, and the depth below them was also strong. 

At various points in the season, Keith Bridge, Hunter Swavely, Wyatt Watson and Elijah Velasquez were the fourth finisher, giving the team more than one path to success. That paid off at the state championship meet. 

“We were confident in them, and that was one of the challenges we had. We had to get that group of four, five, six and seven guys to believe in the confidence we have in them,” Rob Hipwood said. 

All season, the Hilltoppers battled Albuqerque Academy for the top spot in Class 4A. The Chargers won the battle at their home meet, while the Hilltoppers were victorious at their home meet. 

Every battle came down to a few points, and Saturday was no exception. 

For much of the state championship meet, the Chargers held a slight advantage, with Sanchez, Fuehne and Strevell battling against Academy’s top runners for position, while the fourth and fifth runners for the Hilltoppers fought for every position. 

The battle turned in LAHS’ favor in the final stretch, as Sanchez, Fuehne and Strevell all finished in the top five overall. 

Sanchez was the state runner-up with a time of 16:06. Fuehne finished in third place with a time of 16:07 and Strevell finished in fifth with a time of 16:23. 

Academy’s top three runners finished in sixth, seventh and ninth, setting them up well. 

But the Hilltoppers had an ace up their sleeve that nobody saw coming. Bridge, a freshman, put in his best performance of the season, finishing in 12th place with a time of 17:06 to boost LAHS’ chances of the title. 

Just seconds later, the championship was theirs as Swavely came in 20th place with a time of 17:30. 

LAHS’ 42 points edged out Academy’s 49 to earn the title. Rob Hipwood credited the team’s fourth and fifth runners for helping to earn the title for the team. 

“We did think those guys were critical for us to have a chance, and to their credit, all four of those boys stuck their neck out today and Keith (Bridge) and Hunter (Swavely) really stepped it up,” Rob Hipwood said. 

Kathy Hipwood was most impressed with Bridge, who had never competed in the state meet before. 

“He had an absolutely stellar race today,” Kathy Hipwood said. “For a freshman guy to just go out and do that in his first state meet, it was great.”

While Bridge and Swavely, along with Watson and Velasquez, helped to clinch the title, the team benefited greatly from the consistent performance of Sanchez, Fuehne and Strevell throughout the season. All three finished ahead of Academy’s top runner and earned scores that would be hard to beat. 

“We tried not to put the burden of expectation on them,” Rob Hipwood said. “But behind the scenes we were certainly thinking that if they can do that one more time, that’s huge.”

Above all else, Rob and Kathy Hipwood credit their entire team for the victory, and for getting LAHS back on top of the cross country world. 

“It was truly a team win,” Rob Hipwood said. “We had those top three guys, but everyone else had to step up as well and they did. That’s what makes this really special.”