Toppers earn shutout to advance

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By Mike Cote

ALBUQUERQUE — It was a question to be answered how well the Los Alamos Hilltopper girls soccer team would play following a long layoff.
And while the Hilltoppers earned a 1-0 victory, they were hoping to see a better overall contest than they did Thursday.
Los Alamos picked up the win over the Piedra Vista Panthers in the quarterfinal round of the Class 4A state championship tournament and advanced to this morning’s 4A semifinal round, its 13th consecutive trip to the semifinals.
But Los Alamos managed just one goal on the day Thursday, that coming in the 27th minute by Amy Neal with an outstanding individual effort.
Neal corralled a long ball from the defensive third and drove into the penalty box. She made a small juke to the left and split a pair of fullbacks.
Neal’s shot from point-blank range went right through a stabbing attempt by Piedra Vista’s Sara Engert.
Los Alamos had several more chances throughout the contest to give itself breathing room over Piedra Vista but struggled to get its shots on target.
The lowered output was due to a combination of factors, including the layoff, but the Hilltoppers also had to deal with the physicality of the Panthers.
“Piedra Vista has a very aggressive style the way they play,” Los Alamos’ Jordan Ahlers said. “Some of the fouls were a little ridiculous. The referee handled the game decently. I would’ve been happier if there were more calls on our side.”
It was a chippy affair throughout Thursday’s contest, although that was something the Hilltoppers weren’t terribly surprised about, having played the Panthers (11-11) late in the regular season. Hilltopper head coach Jiri Kubicek said he was expecting much the same style as they saw during that game, played in Farmington.
Several Los Alamos players hit the turf during the contest, helped there by Piedra Vista. Los Alamos, however, was generally able to keep its collective cool.
On the field, the Hilltoppers (18-3) were in control of the flow of play throughout. The Panthers made only a handful of runs on Los Alamos’ goal and got off two shots, both in the first half and just one that had to be handled by goalkeeper Bryce Theesfeld.
Piedra Vista’s offense the last month of the season lacked punch. It was shut out for the sixth time since October with the loss.
The lack of offense put significant pressure on the Panther defense, but the Panthers were generally up to the challenge. Engert finished with five saves but only once in the second half did the Hilltoppers have a close call.
Leslie Guarello, who had a big game for the Hilltoppers Thursday, sent a crossing pass from the right side to Neal crashing in from the left side. Neal made a sliding shot on the Piedra Vista goal with her right foot, but that goal rolled about a foot wide of the right post.
Los Alamos, which is considered one of the favorites to earn a state title – which would be the team’s first since 2003 —played things too close to the cuff in the second half, Kubicek said.
“We talked at halftime and we made some adjustments, but the girls played not to lose,” he said. “We have to be aggressive…The defense played well, but we had opportunities.”
Los Alamos finished with 15 shots. Piedra Vista didn’t get a shot off after the 34-minute mark.
Ahlers said afterward the defensive effort made up for a lackluster overall performance Thursday.
“I think we all had an off game, but our defense is very strong,” she said. “That the strongest part of our team. They know how to play well and they do all the time.”