Girls soccer: Toppers pick up shootout victory

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By Mike Cote

How the Class AAAA girls soccer state tree will finally shake out is almost anyone’s guess at this point, but the Los Alamos Hilltoppers made as good of a closing argument as they could.
The Hilltoppers picked up two big wins in consecutive nights at home to end their 2010 regular season. Friday, they topped St. Michael’s in an overtime battle, 2-1, then earned a shootout win Saturday over the Aztec Tigers, also by a final of 2-1.
With the state playoff brackets scheduled to be released today, Los Alamos could reasonably fall anywhere between Nos. 3 and 7. However, the two wins to close out the season could have the New Mexico Activities Association seeding committee cause to bump the Hilltoppers up a place or two.
Los Alamos, however, isn’t going to sweat about it too much right now, especially after two nail-biting contests in a row.
“This one is huge,” said Hilltopper Stephanie Blair, who made two of the biggest plays of the day against Aztec, including converting the penalty kick that sealed the victory. “This will probably bring our seed up in state. It’s so huge, so important that we won this game.”
With Los Alamos trailing 1-0 to Aztec in the second half, Blair went into the left corner, taking what turned out to be three straight corner kicks. The first was batted back beyond the endline by a Tiger defender, the second bounced around for several seconds near the goal mouth before again being knocked out of bounds.
The third, however, was right on the money.
Blair arched her third corner kick and dropped it within two feet of the far post, where Lindsay Benage was there to head it in, knotting the score at 1-1.
Benage, one of the tallest players on the field, crashed in toward the post, timing her attempt perfectly and snuck the ball just into the net.
“I’m already on the far post all the time,” Benage said. “Stephanie hit a great ball.”
Los Alamos got down early to Aztec, a solid Class AAAA team and one that, going into Saturday’s game, could make one of the better arguments that it deserved one of the top four playoff seeds. A top-four seed means a bye into the state quarterfinals.
But Aztec (16-3), despite a strong opening half, could manage only the one goal during regulation and the overtime periods.
“They played a little better in the first half and we couldn’t get our rhythm,” Hilltopper head coach Jiri Kubicek said. “But in the second half and overtime, we dominated the game.”
Despite controlling play through much of the opening half, the Tigers managed to get just one shot off during that time. They made that shot count, though, with Arley Montoya arcing a 20-yarder over the outstretched fingertips of Los Alamos goalkeeper Bryce Theesfeld.
That goal seemed to be trouble for Los Alamos, which has managed only spotty offense through most of its nondistrict season, but as in the game the night before, Los Alamos picked up the big goal when it needed one.
Against St. Michael’s, a traditional late-season opponent for the Hilltoppers, Amy Neal had an early overtime breakaway chance and made the most of it to close out the game.
The victory over St. Michael’s, even though the Horsemen are in Class AAA, could also boost the Hilltoppers’ postseason outlook as wins over district champions, regardless of classification, factor into the seeding committee’s decision.
Saturday, the two teams both got off a pair of shots in the overtime, with only an Aztec attempt getting on goal in the first minute of the overtime session.
In the shootout, however, Los Alamos converted all four of its attempts, with Blair rolling the game-winner into the lower right corner to end it. Aztec’s second and third attempts were both errant, one clanging off the left post and the other off the crossbar.
For the Hilltoppers in the shootout, Madison Ahlers, Benage and Neal also converted.
“We’re getting better each game,” Benage said. “Our coach is building our confidence up…we turned out much better in the end than the beginning.”
Kubicek said he feels the team has put itself into a position to make another good run. Los Alamos advanced to the state championship game in each of the last two seasons, but fell to Albuquerque Academy in both of those finales.
“I’m pleased with the way we’re playing now,” he said. “We’ve seen some improvement. The kids know they can fight. That’s a good sign.”