Girls soccer falls in state championship game

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By Phil Scherer

The Los Alamos High School varsity girls’ soccer team was perhaps the biggest surprise of the Class 5A state soccer tournament, as the Hilltoppers proved they are among the best teams in the state.

“I am really pleased with how the team progressed and where we ended up,” said head coach Ann Cernicek.

No. 6 seed LAHS knocked off No. 3 seed St. Pius X and No. 2 seed Aztec High School on back-to-back days, setting up a rematch with District 2-5A rival, and No. 1 seed, Albuquerque Academy, for the state championship.

And though the Hilltoppers gave a championship-level effort, it wasn’t quite enough, as the Chargers escaped with a 1-0 victory, and the team’s second consecutive state championship.

Heading in, there were no surprises between these two teams. The Hilltoppers and Chargers met twice during the regular season, won 3-1 and 3-0, by Academy.

In the regular season, the recipe for success for Academy was maintaining possession as often as possible and forcing the Hilltoppers to chase the action.

Early in the championship match, it appeared the Hilltoppers were intent on not allowing this strategy to work a third time.

For the first 10 minutes of the contest, the Hilltoppers controlled the pace and possession of the ball, led by the outstanding play of leading scorer Alix Hailey.

After the 10-minute mark, however, Academy turned up its pressure and became the aggressor, moving the ball up field with speed and precision.

In the 15th minute, the Hilltoppers dodged a major bullet, as a shot from Academy’s Eliza Mariner buzzed right past the goal to the right, keeping the game scoreless.

Two more dangerous shots followed for Academy, keeping the Hilltopper defense, and goalkeeper Ashley Atencio, on its toes.

Through the first 40 minutes, LAHS was up to the task and entered halftime tied 0-0 with Academy.

Despite being tied on the scoreboard, the troubling trend for the Hilltoppers continued to be the team’s lack of scoring chances.

It came back to bite the Hilltoppers, as Academy struck first in the 46th minute. Gabby Sanchez took a shot for the Chargers from about 20 yards away that sailed into the left corner of the net. Academy led 1-0 and never looked back.

Following the goal, LAHS became more aggressive offensively in an attempt to even the score, and did come up with quality chances.

The first came in the 57th minute, as Katie Hopkins had a free kick opportunity from 25 yards away that sailed just high.

In the 66th minute, LAHS was awarded a corner kick that led to an opportunity in front of the net, but it was cleared away without a shot on goal.

Atencio came up with a massive save in the 69th minute, as Academy’s Willa Wiese came sprinting through the middle and got a wide-open shot that Atencio saved with a dive.

Cernicek said she was very pleased with Atencio’s effort all season, and especially in the championship match.

“She was really amazing,” Cernicek said. “And that was a work in progress throughout the whole season. So hats off to her.”

The Hilltoppers had one final opportunity in the final minute, but a mad scramble in front of the net was cleared without any damage being done.

The final whistle blew following the scramble, and Academy celebrated its state championship.

The Hilltoppers were awarded the second place trophy after the team’s impressive run through the tournament.

“How can you be anything but happy about that?” Cernicek said. “They were one of 12 teams playing today. Everybody else was sitting at home. I think everything we accomplished this year has been phenomenal.”