LOS ALAMOS — “Almost” is an ugly word around Sullivan Field.
For the past three seasons, the word has hovered over the Los Alamos football program like a dark cloud on an otherwise sunny day. Each year, the Hilltoppers could talk about almost making the playoffs, almost pulling off a big win, or almost winning a district title — if not for a bad break somewhere along the way.
In 2016, it was a second-half collapse in the final game of the season against Capital, brought on by fatigue and a lack of depth as the Jaguars rolled to a 48-13 win that prevented Los Alamos from finishing second in District 2-5A and fulfilling hopes of an at-large bid for the state playoffs.
In 2017, Los Alamos again was overwhelmed by Capital, as an early 13-0 lead transformed into a 47-19 Jaguars rout with the district title on the line.
In 2018, the Hilltoppers could point to Capital once again as the turning point of their season, as Walker Eaton dropped a wide-open touchdown pass in the fourth quarter that would have tied the score. Instead, it led to a 21-14 Capital win and again shut Los Alamos out of the playoffs.
While it might seem like one play or one game determined the team’s fate, Los Alamos’ 10th-year head coach Garrett Williams said it was a series of plays his team almost made throughout those three seasons that ultimately made those win-or-stay-home situations harder to take.
“It’s what we’ve been talking about,” Williams said. “How do we take that next step, that one little step, that makes those differences? It came down to two dropped passes against Capital [last year]. But where do those big plays come from, where you capitalize on the fourth downs or the goal lines where we got stuck, on the touchdowns you don’t drop in the end zone, on the big run plays that don break or the play-action passes you throw?”
Williams believes one way that could change is by demanding that the Hilltoppers be more disciplined and precise in their execution. That has been the constant theme in the offseason that carried into the start of practice last week.
“That’s all we did — we repped and repped and repped the little things,” junior quarterback Tyler Weiss said. “Making tackles, securing tackles. Making sure we mesh with the fullback and the quarterbacks make the right reads, the wide receivers run the right routes, linemen block right. Once we get that down, we can get to more complicated schemes.”
Considering Los Alamos’ triple-option attack demands precision in order for it to run properly, all of those little things become more magnified — like having enough experienced linemen. Joshua Carson and Dimitri Bullock are returning starters, so the rest of the spots will be filled by players coming up from the junior varsity. While the JV only lost once over the past two years as Williams intentionally left the underclassmen at that level to gain experience, taking that leap to the varsity can be a challenge.
“I wish we had a few more big lineman,” Carson said. “Right now, we’re missing one center from last year who we want to get back [on the team]. If not, we have a backup we are currently training.”
If the offensive line settles in, it should open the doors to a more versatile offense. Williams said Los Alamos might have more weapons than it has had in years. Weiss is entrenched as the starter, and his quickness on the edge is apparent on option plays. Matthew Archuleta and Ryan Schwarzkopf saw significant playing time in the backfield in 2018 and provide experience and — in Archuleta’s case — strength to attack the interior.
What might separate the Hilltoppers from years past is the ability to throw the ball. They spent more time working on the passing game this season and installed some wrinkles to help enhance and area that has been sorely lacking. Sophomores Jose Salazar and Liam Harper are young but possess plenty of speed and good hands. Seniors Raphael Lopez and Isaiah Scarborough bring experience and size for Weiss to find in the end zone.
Those are a lot of weapons for Weiss to choose from.
“As a quarterback, obviously I love it,” Weiss said. “It’s just an extra step, a little more pressure, but I feel like I can handle it. I feel most comfortable, though, rolling out. I feel like I can make the best decision rolling out, even if I have to tuck [the ball] in and keep it.”
Still, what looks good on paper might not work out on the field. Williams and the Hilltoppers hope they put in enough time on executing the little things to turn plays that “almost” worked into ones that become game changers — and maybe season savers.
Los Alamos Hilltoppers
2018 record: 5-5 overall, 1-2 in District 2-5A
Head coach: Garrett Williams (10th year)
Key players: Tyler Weiss, junior, 5-foot-8, 140 pounds, QB; Matthew Archuleta, senior, 5-10, 180, RB/LB; Ryan Schwarzkopf, senior, 6-0, 160; RB/LB; Jose Archuleta, sophomore, 5-10, 135, WR/DB; Joshua Carson, senior, 6-2, 220, OL/DL; Dimitri Bullock, senior, 5-10, 180, OL/DE.
Outlook: The pattern has been familiar for the Hilltoppers: An uneven nondistrict season gives way to a district season upon which their postseason hopes hinge. Unfortunately, the finish has been similar — close but not enough. Perhaps 2019 will change everything. Los Alamos has plenty of skill players to use, but it needs the offensive line to round into shape to give them a chance to shine. If that happens, the Hilltoppers might create a résumé strong enough to reach the playoffs. Of course, winning the District 2-5A title will cure that problem.
Aug. 23 at Española Valley, 7 p.m.
Aug. 30 Taos, 7 p.m.
Sept. 6 Pojoaque Valley, 7 p.m.
Sept. 13 at Bloomfield, 7 p.m.
Sept. 20 Gallup, 7 p.m.
Sept. 28 at Abq. Hope Christian (Milne), 6 p.m.
Oct. 4 at Valencia, 7 p.m.
Oct. 18 Santa Fe High, 7 p.m.*
Oct. 25 Capital, 7 p.m.*
Nov. 1 at Abq. Del Norte (Milne), 7 p.m.*
*District 2-5A game
This is a 12-part series on the Tour of Northern New Mexico football programs. The schedule:
Aug. 9: Escalante Lobos
Aug. 10: West Las Vegas Dons
Aug. 11: Las Vegas Robertson Cardinals
Aug. 14: Pojoaque Valley Elks
Today: Los Alamos Hilltoppers
Friday: Capital Jaguars
Saturday: Taos Tigers
Sunday: Santa Fe High Demons
Tuesday: Española Valley Sundevils
Wednesday: New Mexico School for the Deaf Roadrunners
Aug. 22: Santa Fe Indian School Braves
Aug. 23: St. Michael’s Horsemen