Hilltoppers will be challenged this season

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By Mike Cote

In more ways than one, this season for the Los Alamos Hilltopper boys soccer team will be about transition.

Los Alamos, which opens the fall season Tuesday, will be looking at transition between defense to offense, offense to defense and, most importantly, transition from a battle-tested, senior-laden team to one with a lot of new personnel in a lot of new positions.

The Hilltoppers open their 2013 campaign on the road at Bosque School, the first of some challenging contests in the early going.

The opening day roster features a dozen seniors, which some would say is enviable, but most of the seniors for Los Alamos played very limited minutes on last year’s squad. Offensively, 8 of their top 10 goal producers from 2012 are gone.

The biggest loss to graduation, however, is center-midfielder Henry Steinkamp. Steinkamp ran the offensive show and was the team’s distributor, finishing the season with 15 assists, as many as the next two players combined.

The main challenge for Los Alamos heading into Tuesday’s opener against Bosque, a very tough Class A-3A program which was the small school runner-up last season, is to try to see how all its pieces are going to fit together.

“The first game is going to feel as if we’re getting used to each other’s playing styles,” Los Alamos senior Brandon Hodges said. “The first game is going to show us how bonded we are to each other’s playing styles...we’re not in the best form. We’re still pretty raw. It’s going to be interesting.”

Hilltopper head coach Evan Gartz, who led Los Alamos to a state title in 2010, knew coming into this season there would be a lot of teaching to do, although he said teaching is one of the most enjoyable aspects of his job.

Instead of playing the level-to-level, controlled soccer he has been stressing for the past several seasons, Gartz feels his team will benefit from an up-tempo pace and transitioning from offense to defense – and back again – as quickly as possible.

“Defense is our number one priority, everywhere on the field,” he said. “I hope this team’s malleable. We know where our strengths are and we know where our weaknesses are.”

Los Alamos’ biggest strength is its team speed, particularly up top. Los Alamos is expecting big things from forwards Collin Stone, whom Gartz feels is one of the top returning forwards in 4A.

Stone, a senior who will be paired on the front line with a speedy junior in Alexi Ortega, is the Hilltoppers’ most productive returning offensive player. Coming on late last season, Stone finished with 8 goals and 5 assists (21 total points).

Ortega, with 6 points, is the second-most productive offensive player left from last season. The only full-time forward listed on the opening day roster is junior newcomer Jairo Marquez.

Defensively, junior Christopher Parker will anchor the back third. Parker worked his way into the starting goalkeeping spot during 2012 and feels confident heading into 2013.

“We’re really strong on defense,” Parker said. “There’s not too much to worry about there. We have great communication. We have strong players that know how to move the ball around and stay out of danger.”

The defense will likely be tested early. Following Tuesday’s opener, Los Alamos will play in the Louie Cernicek Invitational — it opens with Goddard — then faces arch-rival St. Pius X a week later. St. Michael’s, Albuquerque Academy and Academy’s tournament are coming up in short order.

Heading into the opener, Hodges said the team will either be ready or it won’t. Either way, Los Alamos should learn something about itself in a hurry.

“It’ll show us how much our team wants it,” he said. “They (Bosque’s Bobcats) beat us last year. They’ll give us a fight. But that will show us how much we want to win instead of just how much we say we want to win.”

In the midfield, which is Los Alamos’ least-experienced third of the field this year, Matt Ticknor will get the nod early in the season at the center position. Gartz said his ball distribution is solid and he should help the offense as the season progresses.

Los Alamos finished 14-8 last season, winning the district title by holding off the Capital Jaguars, who are quickly becoming a staple team in the Class 4A playoffs. District 2 was the only district in 4A that had three teams advance to the postseason in 2012 — Santa Fe was also awarded an at-large spot.

The Hilltoppers made it to the state semifinals before falling 1-0 to eventual champion Chaparral.
This season, in addition to the ususal suspects of Academy and St. Pius, 4A teams may have to watch out for Artesia, which has a seasoned lineup returning, and Los Lunas, which Los Alamos eliminated in the quarterfinal round of state last year.

But the Hilltoppers aren’t terribly concerned with their competition right now. The focus is on getting their house in order.

“We’re working on depth,” Gartz said. “We’re going to be good, but it’s how deep are we going to go? We’re still working on some pieces to see where they fit.”