LA knocked out by two-seed Aztec

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By Mike Cote

AZTEC — The opportunities were there in the first half. The execution wasn’t.

To knock off the 800-pound gorilla that was the Aztec Tigers, the Los Alamos Hilltopper football team would have to play four quarters of mistake-free football. But four turnovers and an expensive penalty, not to mention the top offense in Class AAAA was too much to fight back from.

The Aztec Tigers, the second-seed in the Class AAAA state playoffs, rolled to a 42-8 victory over the Hilltoppers in the quarterfinals at Fred Cook Stadium Saturday afternoon.

It was a rough end to a roller-coaster season for the Hilltoppers, who had to battle against a slew of injuries, a three-game losing streak and some high-profile disciplinary action.

Despite the trials and tribulations, Los Alamos put together an impressive six-game winning streak to get to the second round of the playoffs before a bigger, stronger and more physical Aztec team simply wore it down in the second half.

“We wasted a whole lot of energy in that first half just spinning our wheels,” Los Alamos head coach Bob Scott said following the contest that ended his 19th season leading the program. “We spotted them 22 points. They’re a good football team. We had to figure out a way to get over that obstacle and that was tough.”

The Hilltoppers (8-4) actually held the Tigers slightly under their season-averages in both total offense (463 yards against better than 500) and points scored (the Tigers averaged 50.4 points going in), but that wouldn’t be nearly enough.

Brycson King, who has as strong an arm and is about as poised as can be hoped for with a sophomore quarterback, completed 19 of 28 pass attempts for 298 yards and four touchdowns. King, however, was also intercepted three times by Los Alamos’ defense — King had thrown just six interceptions during the regular season against 42 touchdown passes.

Los Alamos’ Corey Clark picked King twice, while Wade Archuleta had the third late in the game.

The speed-burning Clark had an amazing runback after his first interception, which he caught at the Los Alamos 30 and returned all the way to the Aztec 32. Clark’s return, however, was called back for a chop-block penalty occurring near midfield.

That play would be a huge momentum-shifter with the game still scoreless less than five minutes into the ballgame. The Hilltoppers had just gone three-and-out on their first possession, a short-field set-up by a squib kick from Aztec to open the contest.

Instead of having the ball deep in Tiger territory, however, the ball went back to the Los Alamos 39.

On the next play, Clark was tattooed by an Aztec outside linebacker crashing straight down into him. Clark lost the handle and Aztec recovered the fumble.

It took the Tigers just a little over 90 seconds to score the first points of the game, with lone setback Mike Hathcock spinning out of a tackle from two yards out to make the score 7-0.

Hathcock, the top rusher in the state with more than 1,600 yards heading into Saturday’s game, ran 22 times for 154 yards (7.0-yard average) and a pair of touchdowns. He also caught a 51-yard touchdown pass on a fourth-down play on Aztec’s opening drive of the second half which made the score 35-8 and erased any lingering doubt about the outcome of the contest.

The lone Los Alamos score of the game came in its final drive of the first half, the best drive the offense put together all game.

On that drive, the Hilltoppers did what they’d hoped they could do the entire game, namely run a ball-control offense that ground the clock down.

Taking possession on their own 21, the Hilltoppers ran eight plays, seven on the ground, before quarterback Zach Mang found wide out Ryan Schleft on a fade-stop route in the end zone. Clark toted the ball three times on the drive, while Mang and Raul Rodriguez carried the ball twice each.

Mang had a career-high 15 carries for 74 yards to lead the Hilltopper offense Saturday, while Clark finished with 51 yards on 13 carries.

Mang also threw 13 passes, completing four for 71 yards, but was also picked three times.

“That makes it tough on you,” Scott said, adding that he was glad to see his team come up with the three takeaways against the Tiger offense, “but you can’t give it back.”

With the win, Aztec remained the only unbeaten team in AAAA this season, picking up its 11th win for 2008. It advances to the state semifinals later this week.

Scott said his younger players not involved in winter sports will head right back to the weight room this week in an effort to keep improving next season.

“We had a couple of goals this year,” he said. “We got our first goal, to get the district title back. The other goal was to advance further in the playoffs, which we didn’t do, but the kids kept fighting. They didn’t quit.”

NOTES: Los Alamos and Aztec met in the quarterfinal round of the 2006 state playoffs. The Hilltoppers won that game 28-27 over the Tigers at Sullivan Field … Los Alamos didn’t earn a first down until its fourth possession of the game, that coming with about nine minutes remaining in the half … In other Class AAAA quarterfinal games this weekend, top-seeded Goddard pounded ninth-seeded Piedra Vista 42-7, No. 4 Artesia crushed No. 5 Kirtland Central 57-14 and third-seeded Belen topped Silver 27-7 … In the AAAA semifinals, Goddard and Artesia will meet Friday in Roswell and Belen travels to Aztec Saturday … The semifinal winners will meet either Dec. 5 or 6 to determine the state champion … So far in the AAAA playoffs only one game, Piedra Vista’s opening round 28-27 win over Del Norte, has been decided by less than 20 points.