Boys soccer: Youthful Toppers like their chances in 2008

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By Mike Cote

Virtually everyone around the Los Alamos Hilltopper boys soccer team is hoping 2008 is the start of something good.

There is a gaggle of young talent around the squad and once the youngsters can get their feet wet, there are high hopes that the program can return to its glory days.

But with youth comes inexperience, so for the early part of the 2008 season, the team may have to curb its enthusiasm.

Los Alamos has four sophomores joining its squad this season, along with four juniors that weren’t on the senior-laden 2007 squad.

The Hilltoppers open their season Friday in the first round of the Louie Cernicek Memorial Invitational. They take on the Goddard Rockets in the first round Friday afternoon.

As most around the team are already aware, there will very likely be some challenges to face before things get rolling the way the Hilltoppers feel they will.

“We’re doing alright,” team captain Michael Leslie said of the team’s preseason workouts. “All the kids are new with each other, but we’ve had two weeks of practice now...We’re fairly new playing with each other. We need to blend everything together. We do that, and we’ll be an awesome team.”

Los Alamos is coming off of a somewhat turbulent 2007 season in which it was at one point in serious jeopardy of not even qualifying for the Class AAAA playoffs.

With the team’s back against the wall, however it pulled everything together in time to clinch the District 2AAAA runner-up spot, then make an impressive showing in AAAA pool play before falling in the semifinals to Albuquerque Academy.

At the start of this season, Los Alamos will be looking for its scorers to emerge.

The Hilltoppers got big production out of Ryota Shimada, one of the most prolific scorers in Class AAAA last season. In his senior year, Shimada posted 20 goals and 16 assists, placing him fourth among all AAAA scorers.

The team’s search for its offensive leaders, however, will be made easier by the fact that the Hilltopper defense should be among the best in AAAA.

“We’re really deep on defense,” senior Will Schoonover said. “Eight or nine defenders have played those positions. They have an idea what goes on back there.”

Whoever the team’s scorers turn out to be, they will likely be getting the ball to them through All-State midfielder Jason Reagor.

Reagor and Schoonover both had busy summers with their club squad, FC Red Star, which advanced to regional play in Hawaii and both are hoping to take that experience into the 2008 season.

Reagor emerged as one of the state’s top presences in the midfield, exhibiting both lightning speed and top-shelf ball-handling ability.

He finished last season with 10 goals and three assists.

“Jason is one of the best players I’ve ever played with,” Schoonover said. “We have the speed we need and the people to hold the ball in the middle.”

Between the pipes, Los Alamos will feature junior Oliver Funsten, who will take over for Grant Janecky.

Funsten and the young fullbacks probably won’t see a huge scorer at least until the tournament finals.

The two best returning scorers in Class AAAA, Piedra Vista’s Pablo Quintana and Roswell’s Oscar Vela, are both on the opposite ends of the invitational bracket and their teams will face each other in the first round.

Heading into the Cernicek tournament, head coach Evan Gartz had only settled on about half of his starters, although he said no matter what starting 11 he settles on in the Goddard game, there will be no shortage of combinations to try.

“That’s still a guessing game,” Gartz said. “That’s another thing we’ll do is see how everyone plays together.”

Los Alamos will try to figure out what is its best combination prior to some of its major nondistrict tests, such as Sept. 16 tilt with Academy, its final nondistrict contest before the 2AAAA opener against Española Valley.

Other major challenges in the nondistrict season include the Academy Invitational, which starts Sept. 11 and an Oct. 9 bout against defending AAAA champ St. Pius X.

Gartz said he thinks the 2008 squad is upgraded at several different positions and it shouldn’t struggle to make it to the playoffs like it did in 2007.

Los Alamos will try to maintain an up-tempo game like it did last season and thinks his younger players will catch on with the system in fairly short order.

“How we score is transitioning from the defense to the offense,” he said. “That’s how I like to play, from the defense, through the middle to the offense. We’ll see who can do this the best. We’re 20 strong and we can do a lot of different things.”