New coach, new season

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Williams and his new-look Hilltoppers make debut on Friday

By Mike Cote

For the first time in two decades, there will be a new man at the top of Los Alamos Hilltopper football.

Garett Williams, the new head coach of the Hilltopper program, makes his debut Friday night when his team takes on the Pojoaque Elks.

Game time Friday is set for 7 p.m. at Sullivan Field.

With the change – Williams is replacing 20-year veteran Bob Scott, who retired shortly after the 2009 season – things are abuzz around Los Alamos’ training camp. Williams brings with him some new offensive sets and new energy, both of which the players are trying to keep up with.

“Right now, I think we’re doing a whole lot better than we were last year,” Hilltopper senior Daniel Christensen said. “We’re more physical, we’re more aggressive. We’re getting after the ball. People want to improve themselves and be better.”

Christensen said the players have been challenged to step up their game and through the preseason have largely been able to do that.

Prior to getting the top job, Williams was an assistant coach under Scott for two seasons. Prior to that, he had been an assistant in Colorado and even had a short-lived playing at linebacker and as a coach at the professional level in an arena-like football league.

His past experience will come in handy immediately as the Hilltoppers won’t exactly be waltzing into the season.

Following Pojoaque, a team that showed a tremendous amount of improvement last season under former Los Alamos Middle School coach Quevin Redding and qualified for the Class AAA playoffs prior to Redding’s departure in the spring, Los Alamos will face its newest and one of its toughest rivals, Aztec.

Aztec, the third-ranked team in the state according to the New Mexico High School Coaches Association preseason Class AAAA poll, knocked Los Alamos out of the 2008 playoffs in the quarterfinal round.

Los Alamos finished 4-6 in Scott’s last season, 3-1 in District 2AAAA, which gave it second place in the district standings behind Bernalillo, but wasn’t good enough to garner Scott one more playoff appearance.

Scott said he stepped down because he’s getting ready to retire from teaching at Los Alamos High School and wanted to spend some more time with his family.

For Williams, the first preseason workouts have gone swimmingly.

“It’s never a piece of cake,” he said. “But with the coaching staff we have, the players we have, I couldn’t have asked for a better two weeks. I never dreamed these two weeks would go this smoothly. There’s always bumps, but I’m having a great time.”

Los Alamos got its first chance to see what its preseason work over the offseason has done Saturday, when it hosted a scrimmage contest against Piedra Vista, a Class AAAA school in Farmington.

While Los Alamos got to see that it still has some work to do on both sides of the ball, particularly with the passing attack, Los Alamos ran the ball effectively out of a short shotgun set, often referred to as the pistol, particularly when going out wide.

The Hilltoppers also featured some plays with quarterback Kory Balog running the option. Option plays were very much hit-or-miss Saturday, but Williams said that’s to be expected early in the season.

“We’re trying to spread it out a little more,” Williams said. “We’ve got a lot of seniors and guys with a lot of experience that we’ve got to take advantage of. We’re really working on some of those things. It’s going to get there. Not everything you do is perfect, but with the option, that’s the way it is.”

Defensively, the Hilltoppers looked stout up the middle against a sizeable Piedra Vista offensive line and showed good ability to string out plays.

The Hilltoppers are banking on good team speed on both sides of the ball to make plays.

For the first time in several seasons, the Hilltoppers will have an experienced returner at quarterback. Balog, who replaced senior Ryan Schleft midway through the second game of the 2009 season, will return behind center.

Balog, however, dislocated the pinky on his non-throwing hand early in Saturday’s scrimmage. While he got the problem taken care of quickly Saturday and played much of the rest of the scrimmage, he spent most of his bench time icing the finger.

Running backs Kyle Stephens and David Knapp are penciled in this season behind Balog, while key offensive linemen Travis Milligan and Nate Robbins are returning.

The 5-foot-10,  240-pound Robbins, a junior who was named the 2009 recipient of the Hilltoppers’ Black Lion Award, is among the best offensive linemen the team has had in its recent history.

Little is known about first week opponent Pojoaque heading into Friday’s kickoff. Pojoaque last year, much like Los Alamos this year, tried to institute a more wide open offensive attack under Redding.

New Pojoaque head coach Pat Rodriguez has spent time in the Las Vegas Robertson system and was most recently an assistant coach at New Mexico Highlands University.

In Los Alamos’ immediate future this season are games with Farmington and Bloomfield, two very solid Four Corners-area teams, then a big date with current No. 1 in Class AAAA, Belen, which has virtually its entire group of skill position players back this season.

Christensen, a veteran defensive back, said the focus for the Hilltoppers is entirely on Pojoaque right now, but the team is well aware of what’s looming.

“We need to work hard on defense,” he said. “When other teams throw, we need to come crashing down. It’s just working out the kinks.”