Football: Toppers fall in shootout to Belen 43-37

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By Mike Cote

Bob Scott pointed right at the departing Belen Eagles.

“You see that? That right there?” Scott, the head coach, told his Los Alamos Hilltopper football team following its homecoming game Friday night. “That’s playoff football. That’s a playoff football team.”

And although it was a finish worthy of a playoff game, the Hilltoppers came up on the short end Friday, losing the 2008 homecoming contest 43-37 at Sullivan Field.

It was a game that looked all but over on several occasions, but Los Alamos made the big home crowd hold its collective breath more than once. Belen posted big leads throughout the night only to see them all but disappear courtesy of Los Alamos’ quick-strike offensive capability.

The Hilltoppers trailed by as many as 15 early in the third quarter and 14 points with just 96 seconds remaining.

But Los Alamos quarterback Zach Mang led an impressive drive down the field, hooking up with wide out Brad Picard on two big plays before finding Corey Clark at the goal line from 25 yards out.

The drive, which put the Hilltoppers back within one score, took all of 27 seconds.

With 1:09 left on the clock, Los Alamos attempted an onside kick — it had successfully executed one earlier in the second half — but Belen’s hands team jumped on the ball and kneeled the clock down to zeroes.

“Have you ever seen ‘Rocky’?” Mang said after the game of the quick fourth quarter scoring drive. “You know when he says ‘I didn’t hear no bell’? That’s what I was telling myself. We have the firepower, and with a few plays we can do it…I just had to stay calm and make my reads.”

Mang hit Picard on a sideline route for 21 yards to open the drive, then found Picard over the middle for 18 more on the next play.

After Los Alamos had to burn its final timeout, Mang dropped an arch to Clark on a go-and-stop route right at the goal line. Clark squirmed his way over the line with a Belen defensive back hanging all over him.

Mang finished the game 8-for-13 passing for 141 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

Friday’s game had an awesome display of offense but didn’t have much to show on the defensive end. Unfortunately for Los Alamos, the few defensive plays that were made in the contest all seemed to come from the Eagles.

Belen recovered a fumble at its goal line. The lone interception of the game came at the 9.6-second mark of the second quarter with Los Alamos at the Belen 15 and threatening to score what might have been a momentum-shifting touchdown.

The two teams combined for nearly 900 yards total offense. All of Belen’s 423 yards came on the ground.

Clovis Rivera, Belen’s brick wall of a fullback, powered his way for 178 yards on 27 carries (6.6-yard average), running almost exclusively north-south between the tackles.

Rivera scored a pair of touchdowns, one from a yard out and one from 32 yards out.

However, Rivera was only one of four runners to hit triple-digits Friday.

Los Alamos running back Raul Rodriguez had his second 200-yard outing of the season, going for 201 yards on 20 carries. His big romp was a 57-yard score midway through the second quarter that went for a touchdown.

Belen tailback Daniel Jaramillo went for 124 yards on 14 carries, running 66 yards for a score in the first half. Belen quarterback Dylan Barba, who attempted just two passes all night, one of which was nullified by a penalty, went for 109 yards on 12 carries.

Clark just missed the century mark in both rushing (95 yards on 11 carries) and receiving (95 yards on 5 catches).

Despite the loss, Scott said he was far happier with his team’s overall effort in the homecoming contest than he had been a week earlier, when Los Alamos was romped by Silver 41-14, also at home.

“It hurt, but the kids played real well, the offense probably more so than anything,” Scott said. “We ran the ball well, we threw the ball well and we made stuff happen.”

Going into Friday’s contest, Scott had his team run two days of defensive workouts and also made adjustments on his kickoff-coverage team. Neither pre-game effort panned out as he’d hoped.

Without go-tackle and all-around troublemaker Marshall Naranjo not in uniform — he missed the game with a knee injury; it’s unknown how long he’ll be out — the Hilltoppers got only sporadic penetration into the Eagle backfield.

And even when the Hilltoppers could get their mitts on Rivera, he showed outstanding ability to run people over and break tackles.

On kickoffs, Los Alamos allowed returns of 22, 28 and 48 yards. Belen’s worst starting field position off Los Alamos kickoffs was its own 37.

The game looked like it might be over early after the Eagles (4-1) scored on their first possession of the second half, taking 28-13 lead, but the Hilltoppers scored two touchdowns in the span of 14 seconds to move ahead 29-28.

Clark, who scored three times Friday, took a sweep right into the end zone from 19 yards out. After Clark recovered Los Alamos’ surprise onside kick at the Belen 31, Mang found him one play later on the same stop-route at the goal line that he would score the late touchdown with.

Mang said afterward that he was just a small part of the offensive success.

“I wouldn’t put that on me,” he said. “I’ve got amazing receivers. I’m blessed with those guys, and my offensive line gave me plenty of time (Friday).”

Picard caught three balls Friday for 46 yards.

While Friday’s loss dropped Los Alamos to 2-2 on the season, Scott pointed out that the Hilltopper schedule goes into a brand new phase.

The squad has six games remaining, all of them winnable. Included in those six games are its four district games.