Lathrop head football coach Luke Balash didn’t know exactly what he had in his Malemutes team as the 2022 season kicked off.
Despite winning Alaska’s Division II championship last season, Lathrop has plenty of turnover from the title team.
But Balash got a pretty good indication Friday that his squad should once again be among the state’s best.
Lathrop used a combination of big plays on defense and balanced offense to defeat West High 49-33.
“People have asked since October, ‘Are you guys going to repeat?’ ” Balash said. “I’ve said ‘I have no idea.’ In a lot of ways this is a very different team. We’ve graduated a bunch of core pieces and stuff and we’ve got some new guys that haven’t played much before. So I don’t think of it in terms of repeat or anything else. I just think of it in terms of this team and how good can this team be? You don’t know.
“We learned some things about some guys today, what they can add to the mix and we’re excited to go home and grow some more.”
The Eagles were ranked No. 2 in Division I in the Alaska Sports Broadcast Network’s Preseason Football Poll but immediately found themselves in a hole against Lathrop, which came out throwing despite rainy conditions.
After neither team got much going early in the opening quarter, Lathrop put together a flurry of big plays late in the first. After moving the ball into scoring position with some big pass plays, quarterback Solomon Wade found Jirah Simeta for a touchdown.
Less than a minute later defensive back Kaine Clayton picked off a pass and took it back for a touchdown and a 14-0 Malemutes lead. Lathrop recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff and after a long pass caught by Earl Parker, the Malemutes got their third touchdown in a 90-second span.
This time it was quarterback Jenner Webb connecting with senior running back Tyler Clooten on a pass play to make it 21-0.
“We’ve got some talented kids so we always try to throw the ball a little bit,” Balash said. “The reality is, (West is) so stout in the middle it’s hard to run the ball much.”
The offensive firepower was no surprise to West coach Tim Davis, who had seen it on display at a 7-on-7 camp over the summer.
“We knew the potency of their offense,” Davis said. “We’d seen what they did to that division last year. We knew very well how good that offense was. There’s no underestimating those guys. They came out played the way we thought they had the potential to.”
West started to claw back as Po’okela Puaoi, who stepped in for injured quarterback Harrison Steeves-Little, busted a long scoring run to cut the Lathrop lead to 21-6.
But Clooten popped a big run of his own with 10:35 remaining in the first half, scoring from near midfield to make it 28-6 for Lathrop. Clooten was a dynamo all game, alternately using shifty moves to get open and taking on potential tacklers head-on.
“We were expecting to have a hard fight,” Clooten said. “We were not expecting it to go the way it did at all. We thought we’d come down and they’d humble us and set us up straight. It was an experience.”
West finally ended up on the right end of the turnover battle just before half. After Lathrop couldn’t handle a punt, West punched it in from inside the 10 in the final few minutes to make it 28-13 at half.
Lathrop continued to hum on offense in the third as Clooten scored a pair of TDs including a second one through the air as the team continued to get both its junior quarterbacks work.
“We’ve got two good quarterbacks that are both developing and growing and both deserve a chance to be on the field and play,” Balash said. “We mixed it up and with personnel packages and what we ask them to do and they continue to be involved as we go. It’s a good problem to have.”
Despite trailing by a large margin in the third quarter, West continued to play late into the game and had the game within striking range in the fourth.
Aaron Hampton caught his first of two TDs on the first play of the fourth quarter to make it 42-20. Then Puaoi found Toby Miller cutting across the middle for a TD with 8:12 left to make it 42-27.
Both Balash and Davis mentioned West’s tenacious effort to keep the game in reach.
“West Anchorage is super tough,” Balash said. “To go down (their starting quarterback) and keep plugging away. I was really impressed with their grit and their belief and they just kept playing.”
But Parker notched Lathrop’s second interception for a touchdown later in the quarter to help seal the victory for the Malemutes.
“I saw a lot this team can build on,” Davis said. “if we can minimize the mistakes and minimize the turnovers and play a little more disciplined, that’s what lost us the game.”
West starts conference play when it hosts South next Friday at 7 p.m.
Week 1 High School football scores
Soldotna 60, North Pole 6
Kenai 32, Eielson 7
Wasilla 38, Redington 0
Colony 43, South Anchorage 6
Lathrop 49, West 33
East 39, Service 18
Chugiak 16, West Valley 8
Homer 42, Kodiak 30
Barrow 12, Nikiski 8
Juneau-Douglas/Thunder Mountain 37, Dimond 0
Houston 45, Seward 0
Palmer at Eagle River (late)
Teams that didn’t play:
Bartlett (bye), Valdez, and Monroe