District title, playoffs a priority for boys By Kenn Rodriguez

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In 2012, Valencia County saw just one soccer squad make the Class 4A State Boys Soccer Tournament — Los Lunas High School.

With the Tigers looking like a lock for the playoffs, the question is whether Valencia and Belen will join LLHS.

News-Bulletin file photo: TOP SCORER Alejandro Garcia, left, is one of the Los Lunas Tiger’s key ingrediaents in their chase for the Class 4A playoffs.

First-year coach Daniel Martinez came into the season knowing he’d have one of Class 4A’s top scorers, junior Alejandro Garcia, as a striker. But the Tigers upped the ante on their state tournament chances when sophomore midfielder Chris Lovato transferred to LLHS from Belen over the summer.

“We’ve kind of been building all summer into the season,” said Martinez. “They boys are really starting to take to it.”

With just three seniors among the 12 returning lettermen coming back from a District 6-4A champion squad that finished 15-7, it may seem like the Tigers have some of their work cut out for them. But the squad has 10 juniors, including Garcia and goalkeeper Dylan Romero, who is in his third year as starting goalkeeper.

Lovato, who was the top scorer for the Eagles last season, joined the LLHS side after appealing his transfer, which the New Mexico Activities Association approved based on Lovato having changed residence to the Los Lunas district, said Martinez.

With Lovato in the midfield and Garcia at striker, Los Lunas has a powerful one-two combination that accentuates their strengths even more.

News-Bulletin file photo: BELEN DEFENDER Manuel Parra, left, is one of the Eagles’ few experienced leaders coming into the 2013 season.

“Our strength is in the midfield,” Martinez said. “With Chris in the middle, we can leave Alejandro up top and let him attack.

Overall the squad is taking a similar approach to renowned Spanish professional club Barcelona, Martinez said, keeping possession with short passes waiting for defenders to react and waiting patiently for scoring opportunities. Defenders Mario Garcia, a senior, and freshman Shawn Romero will be keys in the middle of the defensive line, Martinez added.

The Tigers were state semifinalists in 2012, but many figured they would take a step back in 2013. That may not turn out to be the case.

“I think we’re going to take a lot of people by surprise,” Martinez said. “People were expecting us to be rebuilding after losing six starters. They weren’t necessarily looking down on us, I still think we’re going to be a surprise to them.”

The Jaguars only lost five seniors from their 2012 squad that finished 10-8 and 5-5 in district. Coach Eric Gutierrez has a plethora of juniors (10, all told) to go with four seniors and four sophomores on a squad he sees as steadily improving.

“We’re very young,” Gutierrez said. ” But my juniors have been with the program since the eighth grade. We’re still learning as a team, but we’re looking at doing more concrete stuff.”

News-Bulletin file photo: ERIC GALINDO, right, is one of the top midfielders for Valencia High in 2013, and a key to their potential success.

Valencia’s focus in Gutierrez’ three years has been defense, which has developed into the team’s strongest unit. This season, with solid defenders such as seniors Alan Ramirez and sophomore Eric Carrillo in front of senior goalkeeper Joshua Otero-Lane, the Jags are looking to settle into more of a flat-back defensive formation, with work being mostly done on the midfield.

“Our mentality is to get better and only way is to play and learn from that,” Gutierrez said.

A squad that relied on counter attacking in years past, the Jaguars will now try to move away from that, Gutierrez said.

“Teams in the area used to have the tendency of putting the ball up there, hoping someone gets to it,” he said. “But because we’re getting more talent that understands the game, now we’re trying to play looking more for openings, getting more men forward.”

District 6-4A is going to be a test for all three county teams, said Gutierrez.

“I feel we do have a pretty tough district,” he said. “Not the toughest. But it is very tough. It’s going to be competitive. Anyone can come out of it (on top).”

With just one senior and three juniors this season, the Eagles are looking to their pre-district to give their five ninth-graders and three eighth-graders on varsity something they lack: Experience.

“Obviously, we’re really young,” said second-year coach Danny Krow. “Right now it’s kind of hard because only one of the ninth-graders (forward Rodolfo Gallegos) feels comfortable.

“The only thing can do is give then time on field,” Krow said.

The team’s lone senior, Alejandro Sanchez, plays a key position as goalkeeper. Krow said he also will likely rely on his captains, junior defender Manuel Parra and junior midfielder Erick Guererro, to help steady his inexperienced squad. Newcomer Brian Anthony, a freshman, is also showing promise on the defensive unit, he said.

Even with that lack of experience, Krow said he’s not going to have his Eagles sit back in a defensive shell.

“It’s hard to win games playing defensive soccer,” he said. “So we’re usually going to try to start with strong defense and them move it up. A lot of it is starting the game getting the younger kids to work the nerves out so we can start moving the ball forward.”

Krow feels that the team will “have the wrinkles all ironed out” by the time district play starts.

“The main thing now is to get the players some game experience,” he said.