LA advances to quarterfinals before falling to Sartans

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By Mike Cote

RIO RANCHO – A first-game win wasn’t enough to get or keep the momentum rolling for the Los Alamos Hilltopper volleyball team Thursday night.

The Hilltoppers couldn’t overcome the taller, stronger and more experienced St. Pius X Sartans in Thursday’s state Class AAAA quarterfinal match. Despite holding on at game point to take the first game 26-24, the Hilltoppers couldn’t get by the Sartans’ hunkered-down defense the rest of the way.

St. Pius swept games three, four and five, knocking Los Alamos out of the 2008 state tournament. St. Pius took the final three games 25-16, 25-21, 25-12 at the Santa Ana Star Center.

Getting by the fifth-seeded Sartans,who upset Goddard to win the Pool B championship a day earlier, was too tall an order for Los Alamos to fill in the quarterfinals.

St. Pius (19-3) advanced to face the Roswell Coyotes tonight in the AAAA semifinals.

Los Alamos was hoping to see Roswell in the semis for the second straight years to get another crack at the team that knocked it out in 2007.

Hilltopper head coach Diana Stokes said that as if facing the Sartans wasn’t tough enough, her team was being screened at the net during Sartans’ serves. By rule, three players can’t screen at the net but Stokes felt the Sartans were doing just that constantly.

Stokes complained to the officials about it several times but officials ruled St. Pius wasn’t violating the rule.

“That flustered the girls,” she said.

Had that been Los Alamos’ biggest challenge Thursday, it might have been alright, but St. Pius’ big wall at the net, led by 6-foot outside hitter Ashley Newman and 6-foot-1 middle blocker Jordan Unverzagt and 6-1 middle blocker Samantha Brown.

St. Pius’ big girls managed to unnerve Los Alamos’ hitters, who were forced to try dinking their way around the 6-footers and had limited success doing so.

While the Hilltoppers never got a consistent attack against St. Pius’ formidable net defense, Los Alamos outside hitter Alex Nichols was able to get some hits through in the first game, picking up four spike kills to help the Hilltoppers to the opening win.

But the trouble was already showing in that first game. The Hilltoppers had just one other spike kill in the game, that coming from Molly Willms.

Nichols, who emerged in this her junior year as the team’s top offensive weapon, was about the only consistent offensive threat Los Alamos had all night. She finished with 10 spike kills to lead the team.

With Los Alamos’ offense slowed, St. Pius’ outsides started to tee off in the second game.

Brown had five spike kills in the middle games hitting from all angles, while Newman blasted a match-high 19 spike kills, most of those coming from the left side.

“Nobody ever wants to go out losing, but you’ve got to give Pius a lot of credit,” Stokes said. “They got up and hammered it back every time.”

St. Pius led for most of the first game but never by more than three points.

With the Sartans up 20-18 and on the attack, a ball from one of the other two courts — Los Alamos was playing in the middle court at the Star Center — rolled near libero Brooke Romero. When that happened, officials generally stopped play at that point, but Romero alertly knocked the ball off the court and recovered in time to make a dig that led to a Nichols spike kill, putting Los Alamos within a point.

After Newman’s service on game-point went long, Los Alamos got the side-out back and scored two straight points to take the first game. Setter Jessica Stokes, the team’s lone senior, hit the back line with her serve to give the Hilltoppers the game one win.

After the Sartans took game two, Los Alamos stayed close with St. Pius in game three until St. Pius went on a 7-1 scoring run to pull away. Los Alamos rallied late to pull within 23-21 but St. Pius scored the final two points to close out the game.

St. Pius was dominant in the final game, with Newman connecting on five spike kills.

Stokes finished with five tip kills and 19 assists in her prep finale.

For the 2008 season, the Hilltoppers finished with a record of 14-9.

“They came out and the grew,” coach Stokes said. “From the beginning of the season until now, they improved…that’s what they need to take from this week.”

Los Alamos 3, Silver 0

The last point in volleyball, it is said, is the toughest.

Whoever coined that phrase needed to look no further than Thursday morning’s Los Alamos-Silver match to find evidence of that.

The Hilltoppers, who finished third in their four-team pool Wednesday, were matched up in the first elimination round with Silver’s Colts. The Hilltoppers dominated most of the way, but the Colts refused to be closed out without a fight.

In both the second and third games, the Hilltoppers were up big late, but the Colts came roaring back. Nevertheless, Los Alamos held on for a 3-0 win and a ticket to the Class AAAA quarterfinals.

Los Alamos (14-8) led 24-16 in game two before Silver (12-12) whittled that lead all the way down to 24-23. In the third game, Los Alamos went up 21-14 but needed overtime to finish off Silver, 31-29.

“We started getting ahead, then we started relaxing,” Los Alamos setter Jessica Stokes said. “That’s how they came back. It was a little nerve-wracking.”

With Los Alamos up big at game point in the second game, the team tried to experiment either dinking and dunking or trying to put the ball through the temporary flooring of the Santa Ana Star Center. While Los Alamos was laughing off much of four straight Silver points, after the fifth, no one was smiling.

The Hilltoppers called a timeout at 24-21, but two quick kills from Silver’s Analisa Orosco put her team within a point of knotting the game that it looked all but dead in just moments before.

In the third game, Los Alamos moved out to a commanding lead late, thanks in no small part to seven crushing spike kills from star outside hitter Alex Nichols.

But Orosco got hot again late, as did teammate Jazmin Terry. Orosco hit a shot to the floor at match point to keep Silver alive.

Side-out moved back and forth until the Colts took just their second lead of the game at 29-28. A spike kill on a short set from Stokes to Taylor Ealey tied the game at 29. Terry’s next spike attempt went long and Molly Willms, who had a good showing for the Hilltoppers Wednesday, put the game away with a spike kill that dropped just in front of Silver’s 10-foot line.

Nichols was red-hot Wednesday, finishing with 13 spike kills in the three games. Sabrina Little finished with six spike kills and Ealey added four.

Ealey made her presence felt in the second game with a dominating defensive performance at the net. Her five block kills helped propel Los Alamos to the big lead.

Despite things getting harrier than she might have wanted them to, Stokes said her team was playing good offense this postseason.

“It’s nice to be able to go to everybody,” she said. “It makes it easier on me. I can fool the other team by going everywhere instead of just going to one person.”

The win gave Los Alamos its second straight trip to the AAAA quarterfinals. Los Alamos knocked off Española Valley in the morning of a doubleheader day.

That win, Stokes said, gave the 2007 squad the momentum to pull off a big upset against the heavily favored Goddard Rockets in the nightcap. Los Alamos would get knocked out in the semifinals the following day, however, that loss coming at the hands of Goddard’s cross-town rival, the Roswell Coyotes.