Boys soccer: Toppers nab district crown

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By Mike Cote

SANTA FE — Winning a district title was the big goal. Making a statement to go along with it doesn’t hurt, either.
At Jaguar Field Tuesday, the Los Alamos Hilltopper boys soccer team accomplished both.
The Hilltoppers finally shook off the upset-minded Capital Jaguars in the second half of Tuesday’s game, scoring three quick-strike goals to win 3-0 and earn its third-straight District 2AAAA title.
Moreover for the Hilltoppers, they dominated the second half of play. In the 2010 season, their play in the latter 40 minutes have been an issue in several big games.
But Los Alamos head coach Evan Gartz said the team wasn’t about to let a repeat performance happen in what was for his team the district title game.
“At halftime, we know what we wanted to change and we did it,” Gartz said. We kept possession of the ball and when we had the chances, we took them.”
The contest was the finale of the regular season for Los Alamos (12-8 overall, 6-0 in 2AAAA), which will now face a layoff heading into the Class AAAA postseason. The only question that remains is how much of a layoff it will have.
Should Los Alamos be seeded in the top four in the state AAAA bracket, due out Sunday, it may not play again for about 2-1/2 weeks. Otherwise, it will have about a week and a half.
It’s very much up in the air whether Los Alamos, or anyone other than St. Pius X, for that matter, will be seeded in the top four, but Gartz said either way, the focus will be on staying sharp and keeping in shape.
Against the Jaguars, who with a victory Tuesday might have had an outside chance of cracking the coveted top four, the teams played a relatively even first half before Los Alamos broke the contest open.
Los Alamos started and ended the first half strong, getting off a pair of shots in the first 10 minutes and two more in the final 10 minutes.
However, the Jaguars (14-3 overall, 3-2 in 2AAAA), who have been one of Los Alamos’ toughest district rivals for each of the past four seasons, made a couple of strong runs up the gut during the middle 20 minutes.
The teams both finished the first half with six shots.
The second half, though, was all Los Alamos.
The Hilltoppers broke the scoreless tie at the 49-minute mark when Paul Hemez slipped through a hole near the top of the penalty box and hit a chip shot over Capital goalkeeper Joel Vasquez.
That first score by Los Alamos seemed to take the wind right out of the sails of the Jaguars.
Prior to Hemez’s goal, the Jaguars struggled to get any kind of attack going in the second half, a problem that would only worsen for them as the half wore on.
“We were trying to get two people on the ball,” Hilltopper sweeper Graham Delano said afterward. “They were trying to hit the ball from the defense to their forwards. If we eliminated that, they’d have no offense.”
The strategy worked very well Tuesday, with Capital being able to put together only two good runs at the Los Alamos goal in the first half and virtually nothing in the second half. Capital was unable to get a shot off in the last 49 minutes of the contest.
Delano, who was the 2009 District 2AAAA Player of the Year, and the rest of the Hilltopper defensive third, allowed only one goal through district play, that coming in the first meeting with Capital Oct. 2.
In that meeting, the Hilltoppers started the contest like gangbusters, going up 2-0 in the early minutes, but couldn’t keep their good thing going. The Jaguars fought back in the second half to cut the lead in half, but could never find the equalizer.
“The last time we met them, we gave up the goal at the end and that gave them hope going into this game,” Delano said. “We didn’t want to lose a game in district. We control our own destiny and we wanted to (win) convincingly. 3-0 is pretty convincing.”
In the 66th minute, Andy Thoma, the team’s leading scorer this season, cut in toward the goal from the right side and put a shot just inside the right post past a diving Vasquez to put the Hilltoppers up 2-0.
In extra time, Alper Unal tallied the third and final goal for the Hilltoppers.
The Jaguars, on the strength of their runner-up finish in 2AAAA and their gaudy record, will very likely get an at-large nod into the state playoffs.
Meanwhile, the Hilltoppers are guaranteed a spot, although where the team might land in the seeding is anybody’s guess.
The Class AAAA postseason bracket is due out Sunday.