LA opens district vs. Bernalillo tonight

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Football: Spartans are two-time defending 2-4A champs

By Mike Cote

Last weekend was the most successful weekend District 2-4A’s football teams have had all season, making the start of the district season all the more interesting.

After all five 2-4A teams got off to an unimpressive start to the season, three teams picked up victories in the final week before district play starts. Santa Fe, Bernalillo and Los Alamos are all going into the 2-4A season off of victories.

Los Alamos’ victory may have been the most impressive, however, as it knocked off the Albuquerque Academy Chargers, No. 4 in Class 3A heading into last week’s game at Sullivan Field. Los Alamos gave up just 164 yards total offense and didn’t allow an Academy offensive score as it won 36-20.

The Hilltoppers open district play at home tonight against the Bernalillo Spartans. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.

The Hilltoppers, Spartans and Santa Fe’s Demons were tabbed again this season as the teams that would duke it out for the district title, much like they did in 2010. The Spartans would ultimately emerge as the champions, posting their second straight district title by topping both the Demons and Hilltoppers.

Bernalillo head coach Ken Noel said he’d love to claim a third title this season, although he said this year would be considerably more challenging than the two previous years.

“I knew it was going to be tough this year,” said Noel of his team’s 1-5 season start. “We’ve struggled a little bit against some good teams. We played Valencia, Moriarty, Farmington.”

The Spartans finally broke into the win column last week, knocking off another 4A team, Piedra Vista. Hosting the Panthers last Friday, the Spartans held on for a 31-28 victory.

“We’re finally maturing a little bit,” Noel said. “We’re like Los Alamos, we’ve got 10 sophomores and two freshmen. We’re getting a little bit better every week. We’re playing harder.”

A week earlier, Bernalillo was nipped by Gallup 14-13. In that game, Bernalillo missed an extra point and lost a fumble with goal-to-go, which cost it a potential victory.

The Spartans are led by senior quarterback DeVante Thomas. Thomas, one of the most dangerous open field runners in the district, has rushed for better than 150 yards three times this season, including 167 yards in the win over Piedra Vista.

The big question for the Spartans this season has been their defense. Bernalillo’s linebacking corps for the last two years had been the envy of the district, but Ivan and Omar Luna have since graduated, forcing the Spartans to try to compensate in other ways.

“We’ve had to game-plan a lot more,” Noel said. “When Ivan was there, we’d just let him go and go cover everybody else...we can’t do that anymore. Now we stunt a lot more to (the other team’s) tendencies and things like that.”

In 2010, the Hilltoppers and Spartans likewise met in the 2-4A opener for both teams. In that game at Sullivan Field, Los Alamos coughed up the ball six times, including four times in the second half as the Spartans prevailed 24-21.

Los Alamos would go on to win its last three district contests, including a nail-biter the following week against Santa Fe, but Bernalillo swept the district competition to earn the lone playoff slot allotted to 2-4A in 2010.

And with the teams’ combined 5-21 non-district record in 2011, it’s unlikely that more than one 2-4A team will get into the playoffs again.

Last week, the Hilltoppers had their best offensive showing of the season. The Hilltoppers rolled up 412 yards of offense, 200 of which coming from Arnoldo Ortiz on a career night rushing.

Ortiz, who had four rushes of 33 yards or better last week against Academy, said he was impressed by the performance of Los Alamos’ offensive line, which was dominant throughout.

“Our line did a great job,” said Ortiz, who also scored a touchdown in the contest. “They were getting off the ball and making me look good. I just ran behind them all night long.”

Jared Mang scored three times last week, including running in a 46-yard lateral for a touchdown, while quarterback Danny Finn hit Cory Geyer on a 50-yard touchdown toss in the first half.

In facing Bernalillo, Los Alamos will have to find a way to deal with Thomas, especially if the Spartans elect to have him return kicks. Two of Academy’s three touchdowns last week were kick runbacks in the second half, answering a pair of Hilltopper scores.

Los Alamos head coach Garett Williams, however, said as long as his team can play with the intensity it has showed the last three weeks — it has won two of three games and had a better-than-expected showing in its loss to Belen two weeks ago — the Hilltoppers should be just fine.

“We’re going to have to come out the way we did (last week),” he said. “We have to execute with intensity. We have to play good fundamental football.”