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Where leadership and experience meet

When it comes to winning a high school state soccer championship, the margin for error is maddeningly slim.

It was a lesson the Los Alamos girls learned the hard way a year ago as one microscopic moment of inattention and a pinpoint finish led to the dissipation of the Hilltoppers’ dreams in the state finale, a 1-0 loss to Albuquerque Academy.

It was a lecture the team has studied well, however, said coach Ann Cernicek.

“I think we’ve learned a lot of good lessons,” she said. “The one thing we can take away from that game is it was a one-goal game. The difference in that one goal can cost you a championship and that’s a motivating factor for us to not let happen again.”

Indeed, the team has seemed to have grown from the experience, she said.

“I think we come in with confidence, which is always good,” Cernicek said. “We come in with most of the players knowing how difficult it is to get there and the work it took to get there.”

That’s certainly not hyperbole as the Hilltoppers are looking to climb atop the heap on the backs of the team’s 12 seniors.

Coach Ann Cernicek, center.

“It’s a group where we have a lot of returning players,” Cernicek said. “That’s always a positive thing. I think that we have a combination of things, with the confidence and their willingness to put in the work to get back to the level we were last year.”

With some younger players also looking to add to the mix, it’s a group with tremendous versatility.

“We have good leadership and older players, and also the other players who have been in the program for a while, so you have the mix of experience and the leadership and the mindset to want to work hard.”

Many of the top players from a year ago return for Los Alamos, led by top goal scorer and playmaker Alix Hailey, who tallied 23 goals and 20 assists last season, as well as Alissia Haagenstad, who had 15 goals and 14 assists.

Mix in fellow senior Katie Hopkins with 10 goals and five assists, and junior Alyssa Parker with nine goals and 10 assists, and the scoring burden is broadly spread across the board.

“It’s always hard on the defense when you have a lot of people who can score,” Cernicek said. “I think that was one big thing that was part of our success. Everybody on the team scored at least one goal. That’s hard to defend against. We do like to go forward, we do like to attack and we’re going to get as many players into that attacking third as we can.”

Perhaps an even bigger difference with the team this season is that Cernicek, entering her second season, has been around the entire time. Last year, she joined the team shortly before tryouts as she was finishing up a job in Washington, D.C. While her assistants did a tremendous job preparing the team in the off season, it’s not quite the same as having the head coach overseeing preparations.

“The difference between the teams is we’re farther along at this point than we were at the same point last year, which is always a positive thing,” she said. “It’s huge, just to have a year here to see how things progressed and have a hand in things, to see individual players progress and be a part of the bigger picture that we want to paint up here.”

As for how far this group of hill climbers can go, it’s hard to say, Cernicek said, but the team will be a fun one to watch.

“Our expectations are, No. 1, to score goals,” she said. “No. 2, to be unpredictable and, No. 3, be able to compete with anybody that we play against no matter what kind of system they play, or how they defend. We want to be able to attack anybody.”