BERNALILLO — Three times since 2015 the Los Alamos boys soccer team has reached the state championship game under coach Ron Blue, and three times the Hilltoppers have come up short.
The most recent instance might very well be the most heartbreaking of all. Just minutes after being granted a new lease on life in Friday’s Class 4A championship match, No. 2 Los Alamos saw its dreams dashed by an improbable goal in the waning moments of a 2-1 defeat to No. 4 Los Lunas at the Bernalillo Soccer Complex.
“I don’t know what it is with us,” Blue said. “We make it to finals and we just struggle. I don’t know what it is.”
Los Alamos spent the majority of the game playing from behind after a Bryan Tarango penalty kick put the Tigers ahead 1-0 in the 31st minute. The Hilltoppers struggled to convert chances at the net even after gaining a man advantage late in the second half when Los Lunas star Jordan Arballo received a red card.
However, the tide seemed to turn in the 77th minute as Los Lunas was called for a handball during a wild scramble near its goal.
“I couldn’t believe that we did that,” Los Lunas coach Eraclio Chavez said. “I don’t want to say I was disappointed. I was surprised because the guys are very smart back there.”
Syler Sylvester, one of the stars of the semifinal shootout win over St. Pius, was once again successful, scoring on a penalty kick. With the score tied 1-1 and Los Lunas playing shorthanded, it seemed that Los Alamos would wear down its opponent — whether in regulation or in an extra session.
Instead, the Tigers struck almost instantly. Tarango broke through the Hilltoppers defense for the decisive goal in the 78th minute, and Los Lunas held off a final rally attempt to capture its first blue trophy in boys soccer since 1983.
“The player was more aggressive than ours,” Blue said. “He beat us to the ball and finished it well.”
Los Alamos will likely be haunted by an inability to score when the stakes were at their highest. The Hilltoppers were shut out in their two previous title game appearances. That, Blue said, is typical of what was otherwise a very successful season.
“We don’t finish well. We knew that we would need guys to step up all season. And we did,” Blue said. “In the games we lost, we didn’t generate chances. We just didn’t finish. And today, we didn’t finish and they did. It is what it is.”
The Hilltoppers knew what to expect from the Tigers, who also defeated Los Alamos 2-1 at the Louie Cernicek Tournament in August. A sense of mutual respect has emerged from the rivalry, which could be short-lived: In 2020-21, Los Lunas is likely to move up to Class 5A for all sports.
“I think Los Alamos is a really good team, a well-coached team,” Chavez said. “They’re starting to be a little bit of our nemesis along with Pius, because we go to their tournament every year, and we’ve played them every year in their tournament. That helps to get to know and get a feel for them. We respect coach Ron Blue and his program. They’ve done well.
On a positive note, the Hilltoppers returned to the title match with just four players who had significant roles on last year’s team. The ability to succeed after such turnover also bodes well as Los Alamos has plenty of contributors who will likely be back next season.
“We’ve got good, young players. The majority of our top players are juniors or freshmen and sophomores,” Blue said. “We’ll miss our seniors. They played outstanding. Four of these guys were in this game last year. One of them was playing at a different position. I couldn’t be prouder of the fact that these guys who were JV players or subs last year, they came in and took this team to the state championship. That’s awesome.”
Despite the disappointment, Blue will look back fondly on a team that came so close to winning its first title since 2010.
“I love these guys. They performed valiantly and beautifully. They’re just a wonderful set of guys,” Blue said. “I’m heartbroken for them, no question. This has been a season that I’ll never forget.”