New-look LA meets Farmington in opener Saturday

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By Mike Cote

There are a lot of youngsters around the Los Alamos Hilltopper girls soccer team this season.

And they’re going to be tested early.

The Hilltopper girls will be the first Los Alamos High School team to open the season when they meet the Farmington Scorpions Saturday.

Farmington, a solid Class 4A program, is just the first big test of what could be a brutal early season schedule for Los Alamos. Quickly after Farmington, Los Alamos will face a solid small school in Bosque and, just a week later, one of its archenemies, St. Pius X, in Albuquerque.

Heading into the tough early part of the season — which also includes dates at the Albuquerque Academy Invitational and against the defending champion Academy Chargers — Los Alamos will also have to deal with the younger players’ learning curve. Los Alamos features five sophomores on its opening day roster.

For returning fullback Stephanie Blair, she said they’ll get acclimated throughout the season and the team will be at top form when it needs to be.

“Everybody’s basic skills, what you fundamentally need, all the players here have those skills,” Blair said. “It’s easier to build on them when you’ve got them.”

Blair, the Hilltoppers’ defensive rock for the previous two seasons, was named to the All-State first team in 2012, along with first team goalkeeper Bryce Theesfeld and Honorable Mention defender Cassidy Reeves.

But Theesfeld and Reeves are both gone. To fill in, senior Elena Atencio will take over in goal, although she only played 40 minutes in goal last season and didn’t face a shot-on-goal.

But Blair said she has plenty of confidence in Atencio and the younger kids who will be aiding her on the defensive third.

“Our keepers, I trust them,” she said. “The new defensive players with me played there on JV. It won’t be that big of a transition.”

The Hilltoppers finished the 2012 season with an impressive 18-4 record and advanced to the semifinals of the Class 4A playoffs before being knocked out by Aztec with a heartbreaking 1-0 defeat in overtime. It was the first time since 2000 that any team other than Los Alamos, St. Pius or Academy represented advanced to the state championship game.

Los Alamos head coach Jiri Kubicek, the longest-tenured coach at the high school and one of the longest-tenured in the state, said the early part of the schedule will let the new players know right away what they will have to deal with in playing 4A.

Fortunately for the Hilltoppers, a few of the young kids do have some previous varsity experience, none more than Catie McDonald.

McDonald sparkled as a freshman striker in the early part of 2012, but suffered a season-ending injury in a district game Oct. 6 against Capital when she ran headlong into the Jaguars’ left goalpost on an attack.

Despite missing about a month of the season, McDonald is still Los Alamos’ leading returning scorer by quite a bit, earning 36 points (12 goals, 12 assists) before going down to injury.

She participated fully in the spring club season, with her and sister Meghan McDonald, one of Los Alamos’ captains, traveling to Hawaii for regionals in June. During games, she will have to wear support for her shoulder and neck area, but she is fully cleared to compete this season.

Meghan McDonald is the No. 2 returning scorers for Los Alamos, earning 7 goals and 5 assists, many of those coming in during her sister’s absence.

McDonald said this season Los Alamos will have a chance to play a role it never gets to play: dark horse.

“I’m really excited. We have a lot to offer this season,” she said. “A lot of schools thought we lost a lot of seniors, but we have a really strong team.”

Los Alamos has rarely had a chance to sneak up on teams, considering it has advanced to the state championship game seven times since 2001, winning it all in 2003.

But the Hilltoppers will be going into the season without two-time Class 4A Player of the Year, Amy Neal. Neal was the No. 2 scorer in Class 4A last season with 84 total points, causing strategic nightmares for other teams. Her absence will be the big reason teams may be looking past the 2013 Hilltoppers.
Los Alamos is hoping to show doubters the errors of their ways.
“It’s such a new team, but we’re all so skilled,” said senior Kristin Funsten. “We have to put our skills together and make it work out….I’m very confident in this team and everyone is confident in each other. Once we get to the playoffs, we’ll do very well.”
Farmington, interestingly, was in a similar situation last season as Los Alamos is now, losing key personnel to graduation from a year earlier.
And while Farmington managed just a 12-12 record in 2012, it was 5-7 at the halfway point of the season, finished as the District 1 runner-up behind Aztec and advanced to the state quarterfinals, giving St. Pius a scare in that game before falling 2-1 in overtime.