SANTA FE, N.M. — Another win this weekend and the Los Alamos Hilltoppers clinch a second straight state playoffs appearance and their third in four years.
“We’re definitely in the driver’s seat and we should be able to take care of business,” coach Bryan Neal said. When he spoke last week, Los Alamos was sitting alone atop the District 2-4A baseball standings.
The Hilltoppers were 9-1 in district play going into Saturday’s finale, a late doubleheader against Pojoaque Valley. Los Alamos beat second-place Taos 6-2 on Wednesday to take a one-game lead in the district. The Hilltoppers went 2-1 against the Tigers this season to hold the district tiebreaker.
“We owed them a game after they beat us,” Neal said of Taos. “So it was nice to get the series against them.”
The season results may seem a little surprising to some outsiders as Los Alamos struggled at the beginning of the season, starting off 3-5.
“We started a little slow, mainly due to weather,” Neal said. “We were playing our first couple of games, even in some of our first tournaments, where we had more games than practices on the baseball field. I think what we’re doing and how we’re playing now is what we expected at the start of the season.”
Indeed, the Hilltoppers have been on quite the run, going 14-2 to put their overall record at 17-7.
But with seven seasoned seniors returning from a team that went down to Artesia in the opening round of the playoffs and nearly came away with the series victory, Neal was pretty confident about his team.
“A lot of the older kids have been playing a lot of varsity baseball since they were sophomores,” he said. “They have a lot of experience from a game count standpoint. They’ve been playing together for awhile. You kind of think that with that amount of experience they have the opportunity to do pretty well.”
Additionally, the seniors have been making the effort of getting the younger players on the same page.
“They’ve been great bringing up the younger guys,” Neal said. “We’ve had freshmen to sophomores playing a major role in some games. The core guys have played a lot of varsity games and the expectation was set high.”
What really turned the Toppers’ season around were the pitchers finding their stride on the mound. Over the last 16 games, Los Alamos has allowed just 2.3 runs a game, with four shutouts.
“We pitch well,” Neal said. “We’ve pitched really well this year but our hitting is up and down.”
And with the veterans on the team, the Hilltoppers tend to take the games in stride, which helps keep the players relaxed in most settings, he said.
“I think we do a good job of adapting to whatever is going on in the game,” Neal said. “As of late, we’re really settling in and understanding that from pitch to pitch, at-bat to at-bat, inning to inning, it doesn’t matter what happens. They just adapt to the entire game. They understand there are going to be mistakes and mistakes but how you overcome those mistakes determines who has the success.”
Two of the senior Hilltoppers will continue playing in the fall as James Neal already is signed to play at Elmhurst College in Illinois, while Antonio Gonzales is looking to play at a school in Colorado, according to coach Neal.
And having players like that around also sets a good example for the younger players who want to follow in their footsteps.
“I think with those two players, especially, have grinded it out through a lot of ups and downs in their career,” he said. “They understand that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Even though they’re going on to the next level, the younger guys have been around long enough to see them struggle, and grind it out, put their nose down and work on things and that’s rubbed off on the younger players.”