In rolling into Saturday’s Division II state championship with 9-0 records, Lathrop, with its average margin of victory of 39.8, and Soldotna, at 34.8, hadn’t given their fans much drama thus far this season.
The Malemutes’ 21-18 victory in the First National Bowl at Service High School more than made up for that.
On a frigid early afternoon with the turf field still showing the remnants of overnight snow, Lathrop’s second straight state title — and second in school history — was not decided until Jacob Johnson fell on an onside kick with just 1:01 remaining.
Take your pick as to what decided this one.
A 3-for-3 performance by Lathrop kicker Ryan Paul Thomas to complete a perfect season of point after touchdowns, while the Stars failed all three conversions?
A couple controversial plays, including a 90-yard touchdown run by Malemutes running back Tyler Clooten?
A goal-line stand at the end of the first half by the Malemutes? Lathrop’s ability to overcome minus-3 in turnover differential? Malemutes defensive coordinator Nathan Zody?
Whatever the case, Lathrop head coach Luke Balash has his third straight win over Soldotna, dating back to Week 1 of the 2021 season. Balash is in his 22nd year coaching in Alaska, starting with a year at Nikiski, then 10 at North Pole, then 11 with Lathrop, including the last seven as head coach.
SoHi coach Galen Brantley Jr. falls to 11-3 in state finals, with the program still at 12 state titles. The Stars’ last title was a 69-23 victory over the Malemutes in 2019.
“What a great, fun game to be a part of with a great program over there,” Balash said. “I think at the end, they said we were the favorites, but I really think of them as favorites every time they step on the field.”
Brantley Jr. said his staff, particularly defensive coordinator Phil Leck, did a great job. In addition to winning the turnover battle, the Stars won the yardage battle 323-307 on the ground and 25-13 through the air. Gehret Medcoff led the SoHi effort with 21 rushes for 144 yards.
“Our defense did well enough to give us a chance to win but offensively we didn’t match that,” Brantley Jr. said. “They were more physical than us. We were just off balance calling plays. We had some fumbled snaps and false starts, and when yards are hard to come by, 5 yards is a lot.”
Those yards were once again hard to come by against a defense coached by Zody, who has held the Soldotna Full House T that has terrorized the state for years to 28 or less points in three straight games.
“Maybe 20 teams in the nation still run it, like nobody runs that offense anymore,” Balash said. “It’s from the 1930s. And everybody’s forgotten how to defend it. It’s hard to even find books about it. Like, how do you stop the Power T?”
Balash said the Lathrop staff has collected ideas for years and Zody is the master chef that puts them all together.
The Malemutes needed every one of those ideas after getting off to a dreadful start on offense.
Lathrop got the ball to start and just three plays in, Soldotna senior Brayden Taylor intercepted Solomon Wade at the Lathrop 31.
Taylor tore his anterior cruciate ligament in Week 3. He will have surgery in two weeks.
“I kind of figured my season was over,” he said. “I started going to (physical therapy) and that helped me quite a bit. It was my senior year. I didn’t have anything else to lose.”
He came back to make two interceptions in the title game and wasn’t even surprised.
“Watching film, I knew I was going to get at least one,” he said.
Collin Peck put the Stars up 6-0 on the ensuing drive with a 1-yard run, then SoHi lineman Kenai Lepule, returning from a late-season knee injury, intercepted Lathrop’s Jenner Webb at the Lathrop 30. SoHi had three 5-yard penalties on the ensuing drive and failed to capitalize.
Then came the play that may come to rest in SoHi football lore with the tipped pass that was the game-winning play in Chugiak’s 20-18 victory over the Stars in the 1988 state title game.
Lathrop was facing third-and-4 on its own 10 when Tyler Clooten was tackled seemingly for no gain. But Clooten popped up and ran 90 yards for a touchdown, with the referees ruling that Clooten kept the ground between him and the tackler throughout contact.
Brantley Jr. said there is a photo with Clooten’s butt on the ground. Balash said he saw the play live, and a replay from two camera angles, and it looked good to him. Brantley Jr. said the play shows the human element in the game.
“It’s not like they’re going to look at film and reverse something like that,” he said. “That hasn’t happened. There’s a level of errors. It’s not like every play I called was perfect, either. That’s the way it goes.”
Balash said the play by Clooten, who rushed 14 times for 192 yards, called to mind something he heard from the late Buck Nystrom, who compiled a 150-88 record at North Pole and Eielson.
“That’s Tyler Clooten,” Balash said. “Buck always said the big-time players make the big-time plays in the big-time games. When Tyler made that play, I was like, ‘Well, there you go.’”
Soldotna answered with a 50-yard run by Peck with 7:26 left in the half that made it 12-7. It was one of three plays for the Stars to go longer than 20 yards in the game.
The teams ended the half by trading red-zone stands, with Lathrop reaching the SoHi 12 and the Stars getting to the Malemutes 2 before time ran out.
“We were out of timeouts after using them for goofy stuff, like kids not going out onto the field for special teams,” Brantley Jr. said. “We got caught with personnel we didn’t want on there, and ended up having to run something we didn’t want to run.”
Lathrop dominated the third quarter, forcing SoHi to punt twice while scoring a pair of touchdowns for a 21-12 lead. Earl Parker caught a scoring pass from Wade and Cherub Adeniran scored on a 9-yard run.
On one of SoHi’s punts, the Stars touched the ball, but didn’t possess the ball to end the play. Lathrop picked up the ball and ran with it, but Balash said the referees said they blew an inadvertent whistle and the down had to be replayed.
“They screwed that up,” Balash said of the referees. “They owned it. Because that was going to be a touchdown.”
SoHi started the fourth quarter by turning the ball over on downs with 10:14 to play, but Taylor breathed life back into the season with an interception on the Soldotna 16 with 7:48 to play.
“For him to be out there and productive was pretty special,” Brantley Jr. said. “Obviously, we would have liked to have the Brayden of old, and maybe it’s a different ballgame.”
Usually, a 17-play, 84-yard scoring drive that consumes 6:47 in the fourth quarter of a championship game would be legendary for the offense, but Saturday it was legendary for the Lathrop defense.
Although SoHi drew within 21-18 when Luke Miller caught a 3-yard pass from Zac Buckbee, the drive took so much time that a couple of miracle plays were SoHi’s only remaining path to victory with just 1:01 showing on the clock.
“They were more physical than we were at the point of attack, and that’s something we just hadn’t faced all year,” Brantley Jr. said.
The coach gave credit to seniors Zeek Miller, Aidan Gavalis, Taylor, Joe Whittom and Logan Katzenberger for sticking with the program through the pandemic years and finishing it out with a great game Saturday.
“I felt like our kids prepped as hard as we’ve prepped for a game and they practiced as hard as they could possibly practice,” Brantley Jr. said. “And then we got here, and sometimes you are a little short. You know, that’s life.”
Malemutes 21, Stars 18
Soldotna 6 6 0 6 —18
Lathrop 0 7 14 0 —21
Sol — C. Peck 1 run (kick failed), 5:22.
Lat — Clooten 90 run (Paul Thomas kick), 11:43.
Sol — C. Peck 50 run (run failed), 7:12.
Lat — Parker 8 pass from Wade (Paul Thomas kick), 5:19.
Lat — Adeniran 9 run (Paul Thomas kick), 0:55.
Sol — L. Miller 3 pass from Z. Buckbee (kick failed), 1:01.
First downs 17 8
Rushing yds 57-323 33-307
Passing yds 25 13
Comp-att-int 2-7-0 2-6-3
Return yds 0 0
Punts 3-32.0 0-0
Fumbles 1-0 1-0
Penalties 9-51 5-40
Rushing — Soldotna: Faircloth 16-44, Medcoff 21-144, C. Peck 6-59, Z. Buckbee 13-76, Tacey 1-0. Lathrop: Adeniran 3-15, Wade 3-(-5), Clooten 14-192, Webb 10-100, Levi 1-2, Mease 2-3.
Passing – Soldotna: Z. Buckbee 2-7-0—25. Lathrop: Wade 2-4-2—13, Webb 0-2-1—0.
Receiving — Soldotna: Faircloth 1-22, L. Miller 1-3. Lathrop: Parker 2-13.