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The rivalry resumes

Rafael Sanchez finished third as a junior and wants a big finish as senior to help Los Alamos win the state championship again. (Courtesy of Blake Wood)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Hope nobody blinked.

An all-too-abbreviated, masked-up-to-run-miles high school cross-country season is just about over and now it has come down what it always seems to in Class 4A: Los Alamos and Albuquerque Academy.

It doesn’t matter if it is boys or girls, rain or shine, head-to-head records, when the teams hit the state meet that is set for Friday and Saturday at Academy, either the Chargers or Toppers will be atop the leaderboard.

Dating back to 1998 for the boys, either Los Alamos (eight times) or Academy (14 times) has won the championship. The rest of the state can claim zero titles.

For the girls, dating back to 2000, the ‘Toppers have topped the table 14 times, the Chargers five. The only outlier was Belen in 2007.

Los Alamos boys coach Steven Montoya expects more of the same in the 4A run Friday.

“Class 4A, gosh it is going to be a great 1-2-3,” he said. “Hope Christian is the third team. They’re good. Very good. They don’t run enough boys if they’re scoring five. They’re a small team and very good.”

Speaking to that, of course COVID-19 is going to add a little zinger to the competition as only five runners for each school can compete, with the top four counting toward the scoring.

In normal years, five runners count and seven can compete. This is potentially a big deal as depth is rewarded for such powers as Los Alamos and Academy, not only their top-five are high in the standings, but their sixth and seventh runners generally also finish fairly well, ahead of other schools’ counting five, pushing those other totals down.

“The battle for the blue trophy is going to be a good one to watch,” Montoya said.

Los Alamos, however, is far from the deep machine that usually wears the green and gold. Instead of the usual 40-50 runners who come out of the program, easily filling three solid teams with studs, the Hilltoppers had less than half that this year.

“Motivation took a big hit,” Montoya said. “I hear it from kids on the team and students in my class. I hear that over and over. It’s a hard thing to give a kid. I don’t even know if you can. You can lead by example and hope they can come on.”

Four of the seven runners from last year’s state championship winning team return, including three in the top 10. They are led by senior Rafael Sanchez, who was third as an individual last year and has been cranking out top-10 state finishes since cracking the Toppers varsity and making an immediate impact as an eighth-grader.

Sanchez said it will be interesting meet after such a short season.

“It’s my last year and I’m grateful for the opportunity to show how much work I have put in and the team has put in,” he said. “It will be fun. It’s going to be different. We know a lot of the top (Academy) varsity runners, so there will be a lot of familiar faces. I’m excited to see how it goes down.”

Wakei Hettinger was fifth in 2019 and Keith Bridge ninth. Ryan Adaz, who was 16th, rounds out the returning runners, but Montoya has high hopes for senior Adrian Will.

“He’s a four-year runner, who was never anything special as a freshman,” the coach said of the runner the rest of the team calls “A-Train.” “But he’s come on like gangbusters his junior and senior years. He just keeps getting better and better.”

On the girls’ side, the varsity did a lot of training throughout the fall and spring to keep themselves in good spirits, if nothing else, coach Kathy Hipwood said.

“Even when things were shut down, they wanted to keep going,” she said. “We kept going all fall. A handful traveled out of state (to compete), but even those that didn’t, we still met as much as we could within the pods. We did time trials and different things.”

The girls retained remarkable mental and physical shapes, Hipwood said.

“Coaches that have worked with the girls this year have been pretty much in awe that they have remained so focused,” Hipwood said. “In late November, when I really felt like they needed a little bit of a mental break, I encouraged them to stay physically fit, but kind of take a break from the mental aspect of training for something, just because we didn’t know if cross-country was going to happen.”

Norissa Valdez looks to repeat as the Class 4A state champion and lead the Hilltoppers to another blue trophy. (Courtesy of Blake Wood)

In many ways, the team takes on the identity of top runner, junior Norissa Valdez, who won individual honors in 2019.

“I guess I’ve always loved putting in the hard work and waiting for the outcome,” she said. “The outcome is the best. When you put in all that hard work, you see the results, it’s the best feeling. I just love running, so it’s never been very hard for me to get out there and put in the work.”

Although state runner-up Sophie Chadwick is taking the season off to deal with some health issues, the Hilltoppers still have four other returners who competed at state in 2019.

Lidia Appell was seventh overall. As a freshman, Emma Montoya was ninth. Mabel Pyle was 14th and Hannah Gartz was 36th.

What will make things particularly interesting is that Academy and Los Alamos won’t have seen each other this season before Friday’s meeting. The two squads usually face each other several times in a season.

In addition, this year’s meet is at Academy, perhaps giving them a bit of an edge.

“Of course, they’re tough there,” Hipwood said. “They definitely are. But they’re very tough anywhere. It’s just another one of those elements that we have to adapt to like everything else this year.”