Defense wins championships. That’s how the saying goes. If the Lathrop Malemutes defense plays next week like it did on Saturday, the Malemutes will be winning their first every championship in football very soon.
The Lathrop defense came up with two turnovers, two fourth down stops, and two stuffs on two-point conversion attempts to help the Malemutes earn a 14-12 home victory over Eagle River on Saturday evening. With the win, Lathrop is heading back to the state championship for the second time in three years with the goal of winning it’s first ever state title in football.
To get there, they had to win what should go down as one of the best football games in recent memory.
“It’s so hard to comprehend,” said lineman Wyatt Nelson. “All of us have put so much into practices. This is really emotional for us.
It didn’t look like it’d be a defensive struggle early on. Elijah Deans of the Malemutes appeared to run the opening kickoff for a touchdown before it was ruled that he stepped out at the Eagle River 35. Lathrop methodically moved the ball down the field to the one yardline, but on fourth and goal quarterback Jarren Littell was stuffed giving the Wolves the ball.
Eagle River then started moving the ball well before a sack for a loss of 15 by Justice Nelson and Cody Webb. On third and 30, quarterback Benjamin Collins’ pass was tipped in the air and Lathrop’s James Opp came up with the interception. Opp ran the ball back 15 yards for a touchdown with 3:38 left in the opening quarter to make it 7-0.
The Malemutes attempted to an onside kick to follow up and try to put the Wolves down early. Eagle River recovered, however, and drove all the way down to the Lathrop 30. The Lathrop defense held, however, and on fourth and three Wyatt Nelson came up with a huge sack to give the ball back to Lathrop. Lathrop later came up with another big fourth down stop at midfield on a sack by Tyler Clooten.
Neither team came close to scoring after that in the first half.
The Wolves then moved the ball slowly and methodically on the opening possession of the second half, taking up four minutes and thirty seconds off the clock. With the ball inside the Lathrop 20, however, Eagle River fumbled the ball and it was recovered by Deans to halt the threat.
With 1:01 left in the third quarter, Lathrop was facing a fourth and inches at their own 45 yardline. Littell took the snap and tried to get around the left side of the line, but he was stuffed and Eagle River took over in great position.
A false start and a sack for a loss of 15 by Jenner Webb made it 2nd and 30, but one play later on 2nd and 21 Collins found Mitchell Legenza for a 33-yard completion to put the ball at the eight yardline. Facing a third and goal at the one, Cashiez Reaves punched the ball in to pull Eagle River within one point. Rather than settle for the tie, the Wolves opted to go for two. Collins attempted to run it in himself, but Tyler Clooten and Wyatt Nelson came in and stuffed him to make the score 7-6 in favor of the Malemutes.
The Malemutes recovered the onside kickoff attempt and quickly found themselves facing a fourth and one at the Eagle River 42. Again, Littell took the ball, tried to go up the middle this time, lost his footing and came up inches short of converting to give the ball over to the Wolves.
Eagle River couldn’t convert and with less than four minutes to go they opted to punt and trust their defense. Andre Williams made them regret that decision immediately as he took the ball and ripped off a 63-yard run to move Lathrop from their own 15 to the Eagle River 22 with three minutes to go.
Eagle River used their timeouts and Lathrop was facing a 3rd and 7 from the eight yard line. Clooten wasn’t satisfied with running time off the clock as he took the ball around the left side, down the sideline and into the end zone for the touchdown. Littell’s kick on the extra point make it 14-6 with 2:12 remaining in the game.
The Wolves still had hope, however, as they got the ball on their own 40 with 2:12 left in the game. A 15 yard penalty on Lathrop early moved the Wolves into Lathrop’s side of the field and a big completion from Collins to Colton Carlson made it first and 10 from the 27 of Lathrop.
Eagle River moved the ball down to the five yardline with 1:21 left as their passing game came alive. Terror struck the hearts of Lathrop fans as Collins found Ryan Porter for a five-yard touchdown, but a block in the back penalty wiped out the score and pushed the Wolves back to their own 22 yardline.
Collins then had Colton Carlson completely by himself in the end zone, but Carlson dropped the pass resulting in fourth and goal from 21 yards out. Running for his life behind the line, Collins somehow found Carlson in the back of the end zone in double coverage with 53 seconds left on the clock.
It all came down to a two point conversion. If Eagle River made it, it’d be a tie game with less than a minute to go with a trip to the title game on the line. If they didn’t, it was pretty much game over. Collins took the snap, attempted to hand it to Reaves and the ball came loose. Reaves picked up the ball, but the bobble gave Malemutes time to get there and stop the play to keep the score 14-12. On the onside kick, Lathrop came up with the ball, ran the clock out, and punched their ticket to state.
“We just knew we had to get a stop,” said Wyatt Nelson. “Everything went into that last play. Every bit of effort we had left went into stopping the ball carrier.”
Now, it’ll all come down to one last game next weekend at Service High School against Soldotna, winners of the past nine state championships. It’s a team Lathrop has beaten this season already, but also a team that has beaten them many times in the past. Head coach Luke Balash even said that Soldotna might beat Lathrop “eighty out of one hundred times,” but Saturday would have to be one of the twenty they didn’t.
Ask the Malemute players, and they’ll tell you they believe they’ll be the first ones to hoist a state title trophy in football.
“I feel confident,” said lineman Justice Nelson. “I think we’ll come through with it. We just need to stay focused and bring our A game.”