For the third year in a row, Soldotna and Lathrop met in the Division II state championship game on Saturday afternoon at Service High School. However, unlike the previous three title bouts, one team left no shred of doubt who the best in the state is. The Stars won in a dominant 64-14 triumph over the Malemutes.
“We worked our tails off for 364 days, and it feels great when it all come together,” Soldotna coach Galen Brantley said. “I really felt this whole year they were very focused, and they were just on a mission to not leave any doubt on who the best team in the state is.”
After not having a state tournament as freshmen in 2020 and coming up short in each of the last two Division II state football championship games to rival Lathrop, the 2023 season was the last opportunity that Soldotna’s graduating Class of 2024 had to win a title.
“Two years ago, we felt like they weren’t quite ready,” Brantley said. “We had too many young kids playing, and last year we felt like we had one kind of get taken away from us.”
The perennial powerhouse program hadn’t finished on top since the 2019 season, and the effort to avoid being the first class in over two decades not to win at least one championship drove this year’s team to fully committing to becoming the best they could be.
“That last couple of years have been a little rough on the outside, but on the inside, we’ve stayed the same,” senior running back Gehret Medcoff said. “We want to work, we want to win and this team just wanted it more than anybody else.”
Saturday’s display of near-flawless execution and commanding force on both sides of the ball was a microcosm of how Soldotna outplayed their opponents throughout the season, from start to finish.
“That is one of the best teams we’ve ever had in our program,” Brantley said. “I can’t be more proud of that senior group. They provided great leadership, they busted their tails all year long. Over the summer we had 50 or 60 kids in the weight room every day.”
The Stars bludgeoned Lathrop on offense with a punishing rushing attack that racked up over 300 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground, and they made some big plays through the air as well. Stars senior quarterback Zachary Buckbee finished 5-of-7 for 86 yards and two touchdowns and scored two more with his legs.
“We executed from whistle to whistle, and it was the most perfect ending I could ever think of,” Buckbee said. “We all were ready for this moment, but none of us were prepared for the joy we were going to feel.”
Soldotna had three running backs rush for over 100 yards and reach the end zone multiple times, led by Medcoff, who totaled a game-high 194 rushing yards. He scored a pair of touchdowns on one-play drives of 86 and 38 yards. He also ripped off 23 yards on his final carry early in the fourth quarter before he and his fellow seniors were pulled from the game, and he tried to take that all the way as well.
“One more time, let’s see if I could take it to the house one more time,” Medcoff said. “I ran behind the people that I love and they love me.”
The driving force for the Stars’ success has been their ability to dominate in the trenches with their offensive line in particular. Their big boys did the dirty work all season so that the Stars’ sideline and fans in attendance could chant “M-T-C” (move the chains) almost every other play.
“We just go out there and we execute — that is the only thing we can do,” senior lineman Hakoa Montoya said. “We have the best O-line in the state. These seven guys are the best, and I wouldn’t have rather done it with anybody else.”
He was a starter on both of the Stars teams that came up short the past two years and said that the younger players were just as driven as the upperclassmen were to ensure that they ended their high school careers on the highest note possible.
“It made everybody drive, even the juniors, they wanted us to win this,” Montoya said. “They wanted it just as bad as we did.”
In addition to having a seemingly unstoppable offense, Soldotna’s defense was one of the best in the state all year, giving up an average of just 10.27 points per game. Against the Malemutes on Saturday, they pitched a shutout for nearly 36 minutes before Lathrop finally got on the board late in the third quarter, already down by more than 60 points.
“It starts with our coaches,” Buckbee said. “They never took a week off and every week felt like the state title game.”
The bond that this year’s Stars built and shared was evident throughout their perfect 11-0 season. It was on full display when Medcoff and his fellow seniors came out of the game for the final time and spent most of the final 12 minutes of the game hugging each other with tears of joy in their eyes.
“It means the world to me and all of us,” Buckbee said. “This team is not even a team, it’s a family. (After) four years of grinding and not getting the results we wanted‚ the past couple years brought this group of young men so close together, and I’m so proud to be a part of it.”
Being back on top is nothing new for Soldotna, which captured its 13th state championship and had won eight in a row at one point from 2012-2019. The program’s return to the summit will be cherished just as much by the community as it will the school.
“We won so many for so long that it kind of made people numb to the excitement, and they forget that winning a state title is really hard to do,” Brantley said. “The fact that we were able to do it in the fashion that we did it against a really good football team just shows the quality of character of these individuals.”