Volleyball: Toppers on a roll heading into Thursday’s pool play

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LA gets No. 4 seed, will face Piedra Vista and Aztec to open 4A tourney

By Mike Cote

Garry Maskaly thought his team would do a little better in the pool play round of the 2009 state Class AAAA volleyball tournament.
At first, Maskaly wondered why his team was struggling with two teams it shouldn’t have had nearly as much trouble with as it did. The next day, the answer became clear.
After the disappointing finish in pool play, the Los Alamos Hilltoppers drew the mighty St. Pius X Sartans in the quarterfinal round — a team they were hoping not to meet until the semifinals. Prior to the match, Maskaly told his team what it needed to do against St. Pius, but the team already knew.
A good portion of the team was watching the Sartans play the previous day. The problem was, the Sartans were playing at the same time the Hilltoppers were playing.
“We have to focus on every point right there,” said Maskaly, the second year head coach of the Hilltoppers. “It struck home with them. It made our tournament a lot shorter than it should’ve been.”
Los Alamos will have another shot to stick around in the AAAA volleyball tournament a little longer than last season.
The 2010 tournament opens Thursday with the pool play round.
Pool play, which starts at 11 a.m. Thursday, as well as the remainder of the tournament, will be held at the Santa Ana Star Center in Rio Rancho. The tournament continues through Saturday.
The Hilltoppers secured the No. 4 seed in the 2010 tournament, just one spot below their No. 3 seed from a year ago. They will take on the fifth-seeded Piedra Vista and the 12th-seeded Aztec, both from the very tough District 1AAAA, in Pool D action Thursday.
Los Alamos will head into the tournament on a very similar note to last season. Los Alamos won its last 14 straight matches during the regular season, then knocked off Capital 3-1 in the District 2AAAA tournament finale Saturday. In 2009, Los Alamos won 14 straight heading into the tournament, then topped Piedra Vista in the opening round of direct elimination to get to the quarterfinals.
The Hilltoppers’ impressive win streak started Sept. 10 at the Zia Classic in Roswell. In those two months, the Hilltoppers dropped just seven sets and posted nine shutout victories.
However, Los Alamos has played just three times in almost three weeks, twice against Capital, which might give the red-hot team a chance to cool off.
Maskaly said the way the team has been practicing during its time off, however, doesn’t make him think that will be much of a problem.
“We’ve been doing a lot of scrimmaging,” Maskaly said. “We’ve really been challenging our starting six…we’re only practicing for an hour, but the girls have been playing very hard.”
Los Alamos is hoping to get a crack at St. Pius, which is the tournament’s top seed. St. Pius advanced to the final in 2009, then gave the Goddard Rockets, who dropped just one of 24 matches all of last year, all they could handle.
Goddard won the state title with a 3-2 victory over the Sartans, its third state AAAA title since 2000.
This season, however, the reigning champ didn’t even make the 12-team playoff field.
Los Alamos’ first opponent in pool play Thursday is Aztec, which was one of three District 1 teams to advance to the state playoffs — eighth-seeded Kirtland Central, the district’s runner-up, was the other team.
Aztec posted a solid regular season record of 14-8, but struggled in an early season matchup against Los Alamos’ district opponent, Española Valley, and dropped contests to Miyamura and Bloomfield, two other AAAA teams that didn’t qualify for the postseason.
Piedra Vista also turned in a very good win-loss mark of 18-4 this season and won the District 1 championship regular season and tournament titles, the latter coming by way of a 3-0 victory over Kirtland Central.
Like Los Alamos, Piedra Vista’s Panthers will roll into the postseason on an impressive win streak. The Panthers have won eight straight contests and 12 of their last 13.
Additionally, the Panthers also boast a veteran squad of five seniors and three juniors. They are led by senior outside hitter Alix Russell.
For Los Alamos, it will look for offensive production from its senior outside hitter Sabrina Little. Little, who had a career-high 29 spike kills in a five-set nail-biter against Bernalillo in the teams’ District 2 opener Sept. 29, has been the team’s most consistent hitter throughout 2010.
Meanwhile, juniors Alicia Rendon, also playing on the outside, and Chase Ealey, who has blossomed into a very effective attacker in the middle, have been key to a well-balanced Hilltopper attack this season.
In the back, Danielle Ortiz, one of the smallest players in the state, has emerged as one of the state’s best defensive players in just her sophomore season.
Los Alamos played neither Aztec or Piedra Vista during the 2010 season, but saw the Panthers in a preseason tournament at Rio Rancho. Maskaly said his team played well against the Panthers and is hoping that might give the Hilltoppers a little psychological advantage.
The four winners of Thursday’s pools will earn a bye into Friday morning’s quarterfinal round. The other two teams will have to play an opening-round, direct elimination match Thursday night.
Should the tournament play out according to seeding, Los Alamos would face St. Pius in Friday night’s semifinal.
“One thing I can see that’s different, is that (the Hilltoppers) don’t see Pius as an untouchable team,” Maskaly said. “If we don’t treat them as unbeatable, we’ll be fine.”