Soccer: Teams wrapping up regular season, turn eye to upcoming postseason

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By Mike Cote

When it comes to seeding for the postseason Class AAAA soccer tournaments, the past several seasons have been more about juggling a place or two.
Arguments over which teams should be No. 1, 2 or 3 have been far more common than which teams should be in the top four and which teams shouldn’t.
However, with brackets scheduled to be released in just over one week, the 2010 postseason isn’t shaking out to be so cut-and-dried.
Both the Los Alamos Hilltopper soccer teams are among those who are keeping close eyes on results and, like Muhammad Ali, hoping their last punches will make a good impression on the judges just before the bell sounds.
While both teams will be off this weekend, they both have big games set for next week, ones that could well determine where they will land in the AAAA brackets.
Los Alamos’ girls have already clinched a playoff spot, something they earned with a 4-0 victory over Santa Fe Tuesday.
The Hilltopper girls are one of just three teams in the last decade to make the Class AAAA state title game. The Hilltoppers reached the finals in both 2008 and 2009, but were defeated by the Albuquerque Academy Chargers both seasons. Their last state title came in 2003.
This season has been a pretty up-and-down affair. Los Alamos struggled early, losing to Farmington in its third game of the season, then more was on the short end of contests to Academy and St. Pius X — the only other team to appear in a state final since 2000.
Los Alamos head coach Jiri Kubicek said that, despite those losses, a strong finish could still put the Hilltoppers (8-9) into the coveted top four overall. A top-four seed for Los Alamos would mean a bye into the tournament’s quarterfinal round, while the other eight teams in the playoffs will have a first round contest.
For its three remaining games, Los Alamos will face Capital in a district contest — the Hilltoppers mercy-ruled the Jaguars in their first meeting — but the other two games will be more meaningful when eyeing the postseason. Los Alamos will host a tough St. Michael’s squad Oct. 22 and follow that up with a big game against Class AAAA Aztec Saturday.
A late-season date with St. Mike’s has been a staple of the Hilltoppers’ season for some time — with a generally lackluster district schedule, one that didn’t get exactly get a shot in the arm with the addition of Santa Fe this season, Los Alamos has used the St. Mike’s contest as a tune-up for state.
The Aztec Tigers, however, are a much-improved team and will be rolling into Sullivan Field also with a chance to cement a top-four spot. In the latest NMSoccer.com statewide poll, the Tigers were ranked third, while Los Alamos is tied for fifth.
Kubicek said he wants to make a few late-season adjustments to his lineup to make up for its scoring attack, which hasn’t been what he’d hoped for this season.
“We need a little more speed in the middle,” he said. “We have good technical players, but we’re not very quick. We need to be solid on defense and at the midfield.”
The Hilltopper boys, meanwhile, are in much the same position, but for slightly different reasons.
Los Alamos’ boys have been solid throughout 2010. Unfortunately for them, however, they dropped games that head coach Evan Gartz thought they could’ve and should’ve won. Los Alamos lost a 2-goal lead to Academy in under six minutes last month, eventually losing that contest in overtime, then played right with the mighty St. Pius X Sartans, but couldn’t find the equalizer in a 2-1 loss at Sullivan Field last week.
Unlike their female counterparts, Los Alamos’ boys (11-8 overall, 5-0 in 2AAAA) haven’t won their district outright yet, although they are an almost-guaranteed at-large pick regardless of the outcome of Tuesday’s de facto district championship game at Capital, or any possible resulting tiebreaker.
While Los Alamos, with a big win over Capital, its final regular season contest, could make a strong final argument why it deserves a top-four spot, those teams that can make solid cases for themselves are many in number.
Barring some type of Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse in the next eight days, St. Pius should grab the No. 1 ranking with little argument. The next three slots are completely up for grabs.
While Academy will likely fill in one of those three slots, despite being thumped by the Sartans 8-1 in the teams’ two meetings, Belen, in District 6, has posted just one loss this season. That loss was to Los Alamos at the Louie Cernicek Invitational in early September.
Roswell, in District 4, has lost just two games, while Farmington, the defending Class AAAA champ, has a solid record of 12-5 and has a defeat of the Hilltoppers on its resume.
Capital, should it be able to pull off an upset against Los Alamos Tuesday and take the district title, could also make a strong argument for a top-four slot and, with a district title, would have to be seeded ahead of Los Alamos in the bracket.
Gartz said that he’s very aware that it’s a crowded field at the top of AAAA, there’s only one piece of that equation his team has any control over.
“My goal is to up the intensity of the team,” he said. “We can really work on that during practice…now is the time to start looking for perfection.”