At a pivotal moment near the end of Saturday’s first half, Lathrop coach Luke Balash goaded the officials in hopes a fourth-down spot went the way of the Malemutes and their defensive unit, of which it did.
“C’mon, we’re the underdogs and (Soldotna) is the dynasty,” Balash ribbed from the sidelines.
He repeated the claim more than once as the First National Bowl Division II state championship game played on.
Uh, yeah, about that?
Lathrop 39, Soldotna 28.
Buoyed by senior quarterback Jarren Littell’s four rushing and two passing touchdowns and sound game-planning from the start of the game, the Malemutes claimed their first state football title of any kind. Lathrop accomplished the near unthinkable by beating stout Soldotna twice — in the postseason finale at Service High on the Anchorage Hillside and during the regular season, Aug. 20 in Fairbanks.
The Stars had won eight consecutive DII crowns and won those championship games dating back to 2010 by an average 18 points.
Lathrop’s players sure didn’t act like the kind of loveable longshots Balash described.
“Not at all,” said senior Dean Silva, who converted a 34-yard passing play for a touchdown on his team’s third play from scrimmage and caught a huge fourth-down pass in the fourth quarter. “We just wanted to come out and play like we always do, and that’s with a lot of heart.”
Prior to Saturday, the Malemutes had but one DII runner-up finish (2019) and a pair of single-classification second-place showings in the old unofficial state invitational (1984 and 1985).
“What these kids accomplished tonight is truly historic,” Balash said.
The Malemutes finished their most memorable of seasons with an 8-1 record.
“This is just everything coming together perfectly, a dream come true,” said junior Tyler Clooten, who recovered a key fumble early in the fourth quarter. “I’ve been with these guys since I was four-years old, and this is what we’ve been working to accomplish.”
Clooten’s fumble recovery came on the ensuing kickoff after Littell punched in the third of his touchdown runs to give Lathrop a 33-20 advantage with 10 minutes, 7 seconds remaining.
“The ball was on the ground,” said Clooten, who proved an emotional mess of happy tears in the postgame. “I figured it was game and I needed to get (the football).
“I hit the ground, had the ball and got up to celebrate with my team.”
Littell scored his final touchdown from 2-yards out minutes later.
Lathrop scored 27 of the evening’s first 33 points and never really wavered under the stress of Soldotna’s ridiculous success. Senior Eddie Coleman caught a 65-yard scoring pass from Littell in the opening quarter.
The Stars finished 7-2. Senior Gehret Medcoff led all players with 18 carries for a game-high 198 yards, including a 48-yard scoring run in the first quarter. Soldotna coach Galen Brantley Jr. and his staff were gracious runner-ups in the handshake line. He didn’t buy the Lathrop dark horse stuff, either.
“This isn’t as special thing as people want to think, Lathrop is a better team than us,” Brantley said. “They proved it — twice.
“They outcoached us. Their kids outplayed us. There is no miracle that happened. They’re just better.”
Wayne Mellon, Brock Wilson and Brayden Wilson scored Soldotna rushing touchdowns. The Stars amassed 371 total offensive yards to Lathrop’s 324.
Littell passed for 184 yards and the two touchdowns, while modestly totaling 33 rushing yards on 12 carries. But he was money from inside the 5-yard line. Silva finished with four catches and 98 yards. Coleman also had four grabs for 83 yards.
“I would say everything came together for us just right,” said Balash, who finished his 10th year at Lathrop and 21st coaching in Alaska. “I’m super proud of these kids. They controlled what they could and played well.
“But I meant it when I said if we played Soldotna 100 times, (it) would win 80 of them because it’s such an amazing team. We just showed up (tonight).”
Veteran journalist Matt Nevala can be found on social media at @MNevala9.