The seven-year stranglehold Soldotna football has had on the Division II state championship has seen its share of challengers, but perhaps none came as close to knocking the Stars off their pedestal as the Juneau-Douglas Bears did in 2013.
On that crisp, sunny day six years ago at Anchorage Football Stadium, SoHi found itself in a 22-point hole in the first half before rallying to claim a wild 56-49 victory over Juneau. It’s a scenario that SoHi hasn’t had to deal with in the five title games since then.
That was the last time the Division II football championship was held at Anchorage Football Stadium, and the venue returns as host of this weekend’s title game.
This time, it’ll be Soldotna and Lathrop squaring off for the crown at 4 p.m. Saturday. Following a season of blowout victories, the Stars will face what is quite possibly their closest competition at Division II this year.
“There’s no question, they’re an extremely talented team,” said SoHi head coach Galen Brantley Jr. “They have one of the best players in the state at any level, and several other skill athletes that can hurt you. They have big physical linemen that they match up with us very well.”
In a Sept. 13 game with Lathrop, SoHi rolled to a 51-14 win over the Malemutes, but Brantley Jr. said Lathrop showed signs of being the dangerous team he knows they can be.
SoHi’s previous matchup with Lathrop, an August 2018 contest in Fairbanks, the Stars won 50-21 but not before giving up the lead in the second quarter.
Obviously, experience also means something in chasing a title. While this is the eighth consecutive trip to the state title game for SoHi, the Malemutes are treading in rare territory. Lathrop last played in a state football championship game in 1985, when it lost 26-10 to East Anchorage in the days when Alaska featured a single classification.
The success of the 2019 Stars has been defined by its exceptional senior class, as the entire starting offense are senior players who have been ingrained in the Wing-T system for years, dating back to Pop Warner days. Brantley Jr. said the senior class, which includes his son, tight end Galen Brantley III, has earned every victory and state crown it has accrued.
“They’re special in a lot of ways, they’re special to me,” he said. “They’re a group of seniors I’ve had the opportunity to coach as youth athletes all the way up. … I feel I’ve spent a little more time with this group. I want to see this group do well, but like any talented group with good athletes in it, complacency is the biggest challenge.
“I feel like we haven’t had to fight that.”
Looking to become the fifth senior class in a row to win four state championships over their prep career, Brantley Jr. said the class of 2020 will have plenty of motivation to go out with a bang.
“It’s the state championship game,” Brantley Jr. said. “If you can’t get motivated for that, something’s wrong with you.”
The Stars know that experience will be critical in delivering another state trophy to Soldotna. After getting 146 yards and two scoring runs, as well as a few clutch pass deflections on defense, in last week’s semifinals, SoHi senior Wyatt Medcoff said SoHi is thirsting for another round with Lathrop.
“I’d like to play Lathrop again, I know I left a lot out there last time,” Medcoff said last Friday. “They’re quarterback is great. It’ll be awesome to see what he does next time.”
Lathrop’s QB is 6-foot-4, 235-pound Jace Henry, a terror for most defenses. In their previous matchup in Soldotna, Henry accounted for 96 of the Malamutes’ 128 rushing yards and threw for 183 yards and two TD passes.
But Brantley Jr. said he’d rather try to stop Henry’s throws than his speed on the ground.
“If he’s throwing the ball, I’m feeling pretty good,” Brantley Jr. said. “He’s a better rusher than you think, we just don’t see that kind of speed, and most people don’t. You can do everything right, block the holes and make your assignments, and he falls forward and it’s 4 to 5 more yards. It’s really hard to get them off the field. He is an absolute load.
“It’s gonna take 11 players to slow him down.”
Against SoHi last month, Henry’s favorite target was senior receiver Jhon Rones, who had both scoring catches from Henry.
“He’s probably their most dangerous receiver and he’ll certainly be someone to watch,” Brantley Jr. said.
SoHi’s biggest playmakers this year have been senior backs Wyatt Medcoff, Aaron Faletoi and Hudson Metcalf. The offense has averaged nearly 390 rushing yards per game, which has allowed the SoHi passing game to open up on play-action schemes. Truesdell has completed 80% of his passes for 12 touchdown passes with no interceptions.