Boys Prep Soccer preview: LLHS among faves in district, state

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2013 was a banner year for the Los Lunas Tigers soccer team, a solid season at Valencia and a bummer in Belen. 2014, however, could be quite different, with one exception — the Tigers are just about as loaded as they were last season.

The Tigers district championship last season came with a gaudy 10-0 league record, helping LLHS earn a top-four seed in the Class 4A state tournament. But a pair of second-half goals by Capital left the Tigers stunned in a 3-2 quarterfinal loss that finished their season at 17-4.

News-Bulletin file photo: LOS LUNAS’ Chris Lovato (10) and Alejandro Garcia (9), left, finished 2013 ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the state in scoring with 96 and 82 points respectively. The dynamic duo are among nine returning starters for the Tigers, who are looking to repeat as district champions.

But Los Lunas only lost two seniors from that squad, and the return of senior striker Alejandro Garcia and junior midfielder Chris Lovato, both captains last season, means the Tigers still possess the state’s most dangerous one-two scoring combination (the duo combined to score 75 goals in 2013.)

Add to that the return of 14 lettermen and nine starters, including senior goalkeeper and captain Dylan Kelly-Romero, defender Oscar Davila and sophomore Tomas Ruiz, who can play at any of the three positions on the field, and Los Lunas is rightfully a favorite to make its first ever Final Four.

“We have a lot of experience, more than anything else,” said second-year coach Daniel Martinez. “We’re growing and changing. It’s sort of a transition period for the kids even though everyone is coming back.”

Martinez said due to the new ultra-competitive District 3-5A, that he’s changed some things up for the team in summer workouts and going into the season.

“We’re really trying to push their limits and get as much as possible out of every player,” he said. “We return two of the top scorers in the state, so we’re not worried about that. We have firepower there. Given the experience we have, as we get deeper into district, we want to keep as many clean sheets as possible and try to shut teams down defensively.”

No one has to remind the 2014 edition of the Eagles that they only won four games in 2013. But, as first-year coach Wilfred Carassco put it, “Last year was last year.”

“We are moving forward, we are working hard, we are valuing each other as friends and teammates,” said Carassco in an email. “I was pleased with the transition (over the summer). The boys have been working hard.”

With nine returning lettermen, all starters, including captains and senior midfielder/defenders Manuel Parra and Erick Guererro, as well as seniors Alan Hidalgo, a midfielder/forward, and new goalkeeper Michael Vialpando, also a senior.

News-Bulletin file photo: VALENCIA SENIOR Andrew Snider (3), right, is one of many key players for a Jaguar team that is in partial rebuilding mode this season.

Carassco said the success of this year’s squad lies with its “entire senior class.”

“(The seniors) are setting the standard for our younger players,” he said. “They have definitely raised the bar for this season and I expect to surprise some teams.”

Carassco said he worked closely with the past two Belen boys coaches, so fans should not expect a big change in philosophy or tactics with him in the coach’s chair.

“We have to be able to pay attention to fundamentals and master them,” Carassco said. “We have to be able to work as a unit… Most of all, we need to understand that fitness and preparation, both mentally and physically, are key.”

The Jags only lost four players to graduation. But a decision by several incoming seniors to not come out for the team has left fourth-year coach Eric Gutierrez with a bit of a rebuilding project at VHS.

“We’re really loaded, we have a lot of seniors who weren’t starters coming back,” he said. “We’re not quite at the same skill level or fitness level. It’s not a total rebuilding but we are going to have to learn to play together.”

Junior forwards Bryan Robles, and Edgar Rivas return, as does junior defender Eric Carrillo to form the core of the team, in addition to senior Andrew Snider, who spent last season as a striker but could be moved to midfield and defender this season to take advantage of his athleticism, said Gutierrez.

With nine returners and seven starters back, the Jaguars could improve last season’s 12-8 regular season record and 6-4 district finish, if they can find cohesion as a team.

“We’re concentrating on gelling,” Gutierrez said. “We have good strikers, we just need to work on finishing. But we’re going to have to rebuild the defensive line. So that’ll take some work. The new district is going to be tough. It’s going to be a great season and a great challenge.”