Big team. Little me.
The slogan that the Soldotna football team has rode to eight straight Division II state titles was never more evident Saturday night at Anchorage Football Stadium than in the post-game celebration, when members of the Stars lifted up team manager Matthew Martinelli into the air — wheelchair and all — as the team toasted another state crown.
Soldotna romped its way to a 69-13 victory over the Lathrop Malamutes to further boost its status as Alaska’s most dominant prep football program ever. SoHi has won 12 of the last 14 state championships in small- and medium-schools divisions.
Galen Brantley Jr. has guided the team to 11 of those titles as head coach of the Stars, infusing an unstoppable Wing-T system over the years that has created a dynasty, and part of that system stresses teamwork, not individual, which is in part why Martinelli got to have so much of the fun after the win.
“Matt’s really an inspiration for the team,” said senior tight end Galen Brantley III.
“He’s out there week in and week out,” added senior fullback Wyatt Medcoff. “He’s pushing through it, we should to.”
Martinelli’s role on the team may seem small as team manager, but his impact on players is large. Martinelli has cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair, but was very much a part of the celebration Saturday night as his teammates celebrated their accomplishment of a 9-0 season.
Brantley Jr. said watching the senior class grow up from their Pop Warner days to winning a fourth ring in four years at the high school level is what made Saturday night so special.
“It’s special for me, just because I’ve had those young guys so long when they were little,” Brantley Jr. said. “Just couldn’t be happier that they finished playing a good game.”
For senior quarterback Jersey Truesdell, the game was the final chapter of a career that’s come full circle. Truesdell was called on to start the 2016 state final against Palmer as a freshman, following the loss of the team’s starting QB Brandon Crowder, to injury. At age 15, Truesdell grabbed hold of the reins and guided the Stars to the victory that day, and he hasn’t looked back since with a 4-0 record in championship finals.
Truesdell said the nerves he felt as a freshman weren’t there Saturday as the quarterback and leader of the team, which allowed him to enjoy the experience, and he was named Northern Lights Conference Offensive Player of the Year afterward.
“I just feel complete,” he said. “This has been just a great ride, and I’m not a cryer when it comes to stuff like this, but I’m super proud of my friends, proud of everything we’ve done.”
The SoHi signal-caller recorded a masterful game, capping his senior campaign with five total touchdowns and 281 yards of total offense — Truesdell tossed three TD passes with 144 yards while rushing for a team-high 137 yards and two TD runs.
In addition to Truesdell, the Stars got big days out of Medcoff (98 rushing yards and two TDs), Aaron Faletoi (73 yards and two TDs), Brantley III (68 receiving yards and two TD catches) and Hudson Metcalf (76 receiving yards and a TD, as well as an interception).
SoHi’s incredible run was also made possible by a senior-laden offensive line, led by NLC Lineman of the Year Melvin Lloyd, who took time to soak in the victory.
“Some people can really lose the meaning behind it after winning so many,” Lloyd said. “But everything on this team has meaning, and there’s nothing you can take away from that.”
Lathrop was playing in its first state football final since 1985, when the Malemutes lost 26-10 to East Anchorage in the days of single classification. Lathrop head coach Luke Balash said the youth of the 2019 team provided enough areas to improve in the weeks between the regular-season meeting and Saturday’s title clash.
“About half our starters are sophomores, so they learned a lot from the last go-around, but not enough to catch up with the juggernaut that is SoHi,” Balash said. “This is a special year for them.”
While SoHi dominated the contest with 524 yards of offense, one of the game’s biggest playmakers was Henry, the 6-foot-3, 240-pound Lathrop QB who put on a show. Henry rushed for a game-high 200 yards on 25 carries and scored all three Lathrop touchdowns on the ground.
Brantley Jr. said slowing Henry down was a prerogative.
“We certainly came out a little slow and Lathrop showed up ready to play,” he said.
The Malemutes sure flashed some talent early as Lathrop drove 68 yards down field on its first possession and scored to take a 7-6 lead in the first quarter.
That 3-yard touchdown run by QB Jace Henry was followed by a rare defensive stand against SoHi, as Truesdell was sacked on third down to force a punt.
However, in what was perhaps the biggest momentum swing of the game, Lathrop was charged with roughing the kicker on the SoHi punt, breathing new life into the Stars offense. SoHi made Lathrop pay by scoring the go-ahead TD on the drive, an 8-yard burst along the edge by Wyatt Medcoff with 2:18 left in the opening frame.
“Even with a little bit of adversity, we were resilient, they didn’t stop and eventually we pulled away,” Brantley Jr. said.
As if to drive their point home, the Stars scored just three plays later with an 18-yard interception return TD by Galen Brantley III. Henry scrambled to avoid pressure from the SoHi D-line and lobbed up a pass as he was being tackled, which landed in the hands of Brantley III for the pick-six and a 20-7 lead.
After stopping Lathrop on downs, SoHi opened up its passing game, starting with a 4-yard connection from Truesdell to Brantley III on a fade route that left Brantley wide open.
The Truesdell-Brantley connection returned on the next drive, which ended in an 18-yard short toss that finished with Brantley scampering along the sideline into the end zone. That pushed the SoHi lead to 34-7 with six minutes left in the first half.
After another turnover on downs for Lathrop, SoHi nailed what appeared to be the final nail in the coffin with an 80-yard scoring burst by Truesdell, leading SoHi into halftime with a 41-7 lead.
By the fourth quarter, the starting lineup was pulled in favor of the SoHi JV getting reps, just like every other game this year.
Stars 69, Malamutes 23
Lathrop 7 0 8 8 —23
Soldotna 20 21 28 0 —69
Sol — Truesdell 15 run (run failed), 9:33
Lat — Henry 3 run (Littell kick), 6:47
Sol — Medcoff 8 run (Truesdell kick), 2:18
Sol — Brantley III 18 interception return (Truesdell kick), 1:34
Sol — Brantley III 4 pass from Truesdell (Truesdell kick), 9:08
Sol — Brantley III 18 pass from Truesdell (Truesdell kick), 6:03
Sol — Truesdell 80 run (Truesdell kick), 3:16
Sol — Medcoff 10 run (Truesdell kick), 10:50
Sol — Metcalf 45 pass from Truesdell (Truesdell kick), 8:33
Sol — Faletoi 14 run (Truesdell kick), 4:37
Lat — Henry 54 run (Hill pass from Henry), 4:16
Sol — Faletoi 17 run (Truesdell kick), :48
Lat — Henry 1 run (Opp pass from Henry), 9:21
1st downs 15 18
Rushing 36-256 47-380
Pass yds 82 144
Comp-att-int 6-22-2 8-10-0
Return yds 162 35
Punts 2-15.0 0
Fumbles-lost 2-0 1-1
Penalties 10-86 9-96
Rushing — Soldotna: Truesdell 9-137, Medcoff 17-98, Faletoi 7-73, Metcalf 3-16, Morrison 1-(-6), C. Johnson 2-21, Kapp 2-(-2), Al. Faletoi 1-18, Taylor 1-15, O’Reagan 1-(-1), Spies 1-4, Harper 1-7, #6 1-0. Lathrop: Henry 25-200, Ayala 6-43, Williams 2-6, Tuese 2-2, Luke 1-5.
Passing — Soldotna: Truesdell 8-10-3—144. Lathrop: Henry 6-22-0—82.