The Soldotna Stars football team fell to Fairbanks’ Lathrop High School in a close Division II state championship game at Anchorage’s Service High School on Saturday evening, 39-28, breaking an eight-year SoHi state title run and giving Lathrop its first ever state title.
Malemutes senior quarterback Jarren Littell rushed for four short touchdowns in the game in addition to finishing 11 of 14 through the air for 184 yards and two touchdowns.
The senior said he was speechless after Saturday’s win.
“It’s incredible, we’re really still in shock,” Littell said. “Ever since we were like 4 years old me and my teammates, my fellow 14 seniors, said we want(ed) to win a state championship … and now we’re going down in the history books with it.”
Galen Brantley Jr., Soldotna’s head coach, said he was proud of the Stars for Saturday’s performance, although the outcome wasn’t what they wanted.
“We’re extremely proud of our kids, they battled their tails off,” he said after the game. “The amount of adversity our kids went through in our district with all the close contacts and the not knowing who you’re going to have from week to week playing, it forced a lot of different kids to step up in different situations.”
The Stars lost to Lathrop 27-21 in Week 2, which was Soldotna’s only loss heading into the Division II state championship. Lathrop finishes with only a loss to Division I East.
“In a game with a team with as much talent as Lathrop you really need a few breaks along the way, and (we) just didn’t seem to catch those,” Brantley Jr. said.
The Malemutes came out of the gate quickly, with Lathrop’s Dean Silva crashing the end zone after receiving a 34-yard pass from Littell just over a minute into the game. With an extra point Fairbanks led Soldotna 7-0 and would never trail.
Lathrop’s head coach, Luke Balash, said his squad capitalized in the beginning and end of each half.
“You talk about in football — the last two minutes of the half and the last two minutes of the game are really crucial, as are the first two minutes of the half and the first two minutes of the game,” Balash said. “It really felt like our kids did a great job of starting hot right to start the game.”
The Stars turned around and scored on their first possession of the game, with sophomore Gehret Medcoff sprinting 48 yards to the end zone and bringing Soldotna within one point of Lathrop with 8:58 left in the first quarter. Medcoff would rush for 198 yards on 18 carries in the game.
Malamutes senior Edward Coleman scored for Fairbanks on an 65-yard pass from Littell with 8:07 left in the first quarter, followed shortly by an 3-yard run by Littell with 6:47 left that was set up by an interception by Lathrop’s Peyton George. The Malemutes led the Stars 19-6 at the end of the first quarter.
After the Lathrop defense held on fourth down at the Soldotna 40-yard line, Littell scored again on Lathrop’s first possession of the second quarter on a 3-yard run by Littell for a 27-6 lead.
Soldotna’s Wayne Mellon responded with another Stars touchdown on a 1-yard gain with 7:10 left in the half, after a long rush by Medcoff got SoHi close to the end zone.
Mellon said when he’s on the field he’s looking out for the keys his teammates in front are leaving him.
“My own linemen, they give us all the shots,” he said after the game. “Every time I ran, it was all because of them.”
Soldotna had a few missed fourth-down opportunities in the first, including missing a conversion by inches with 1:30 left in the first half at the Lathrop 26.
The Malemutes were up 27-12 heading into the second half.
The Stars had the only touchdown of the third quarter — Brock Wilson with a 20-yard run up the middle with 2:27 left until the fourth. With a successful two point conversion by Wilson, Soldotna was just down 27-20 going into the final quarter.
Lathrop turned around in the fourth quarter to score just about two minutes in. The score came on a 1-yard run by Littell after he threw a 30-yard pass to Silva to convert a fourth-and-five. That pushed the scored to 33-20.
Fairbanks then regained the ball after a fumble on the kickoff.
Littell took advantage with a 2-yard run with 7:07 left in the game for a 39-20 advantage.
The Stars made a final push to score before their time ran out, with Brayden Taylor scoring after four Soldotna first downs and Medcoff raking in another two points on the conversion, but it wasn’t enough to lift them over Lathrop.
Brantley Jr. said Lathrop had a couple of key plays that made the difference in the game.
“We made mistakes and they didn’t,” he said. “We had two turnovers, they didn’t have any turnovers. We got caught in a bad defense on a fourth down … the reset-the-chains measurement … we had four things that didn’t go our way.”
Brantley Jr. said the team will miss the seniors who played their last high school football game Saturday night. They were Wilson, Mellon, Cody Uribe-Koivisto, Noah Harper, Dylan Dahlgren, Nate Mowery, Dylan Davidhizar, Kaidan Spies, Atticus Gibson and Harley Johnson.
“They are such good people,” Brantley Jr. said. “I think that’s the biggest thing I’ll remember about this group — there were some really good football players mixed in with that senior class but they’re even better people.”
He recognized Mellon and Wilson as standouts Saturday.
“Wayne had a great season for us … him flying around and making plays as well as he did really toughened up our defensive front,” Brantley Jr. said. “And then Brock, Brock’s a special person too, just a great leader for us.”
Both Mellon and Wilson, along with Medcoff, received individual outstanding player awards at the ceremony following the championship game on Saturday. Medcoff was also awarded Soldotna’s player of the game.
Wilson said he was proud of his last career football game.
“There’s no reason to be upset because we left it all out there,” he said after the awards ceremony.
Wilson said he waited a long time for the chance to play for a state championship.
“Finally being able to play in my own state game that I earned with everyone, all the seniors this year, that was nice,” he said.
Mellon said he was the most proud of his personal growth as a football player over his high school career.
“Being a freshman and not doing much, I wasn’t too good,” he said after the game. “And each year, just putting everything I had until I was where I’m at now … it was just hard work and dedication.”
Brantley Jr. said the Stars will look back in retrospect and take pride in their state finish this year.
“To get to this point, they’re a little sour right now, but years from now they’re going to look back and be … proud of what they accomplished,” Brantley Jr. said.
Balash said his squad was ecstatic to take home Lathrop’s first state football championship.
“We’ve come close a lot, there have been a lot of championship games over the years and (Lathrop has) always had a chance,” he said. “But to actually put it all together has been the hard part … so it’s kind of been an accumulation of work.”
He said Lathrop’s standouts included Silva, Coleman and Littell, as well as George, Tyler Clooten and Andre Williams.
Littell, Coleman and John Nelson were awarded individual outstanding player awards for the Malamutes.
Littell received player of the game for Lathrop.
Malemutes 39, Stars 28
Soldotna 6 6 8 8 —28
Lathrop 19 8 0 12 —39
Lat — Silva 34 pass from Littell (Littell kick), 10:59.
Sol — Medcoff 48 run (kick failed), 8:58.
Lat — Coleman 65 pass from Littell (kick failed), 8:07.
Lat — Littell 3 run (kick failed), 6:47.
Lat — Littell 3 run (Littell run), 11:57.
Sol — Mellon 1 run (pass failed), 7:10.
Sol — Wilson 20 run (Wilson run), 2:27.
Lat — Littell 1 run (pass failed), 10:07.
Lat — Littell 2 run (pass failed), 7:07.