Going into the Division II state football championship game Saturday at a sunny Service High School in Anchorage, Soldotna’s Class of 2024 was looking at the possibility of becoming the first since the Class of 2006 to leave the school without a state football title.
After 48 minutes of football and a 64-14 victory over Lathrop to cap an 11-0 season, that same group of seniors was being called the leaders of one of the best teams in the school’s illustrious history by head coach Galen Brantley Jr.
As this season progressed, and Soldotna’s offense and defense hummed to a tune that eventually produced an average score of 63.9-10.3, the team would ask Brantley Jr. how it stacked up with squads like the powerhouse 2007 or 2019 teams.
“And I would always tell them, ‘You got to win one first. You got to put the title on the end of it,’” Brantley Jr. said. “Now that they’ve done that, they certainly are in that conversation.
“That was a very good football team for us.”
Brantley Jr. speaks with some authority on the matter.
He improved to 12-3 in state finals, 32-4 in the playoffs and 156-9 as a head coach in winning the school’s 13th state championship. If the 4-0 pandemic season of 2020 is counted, the 1993 SoHi graduate now has 11 undefeated seasons.
The seeds for this year’s dominant run were planted in the last two seasons, when Lathrop was the better team than Soldotna.
Malemutes coach Luke Balash, who got his coaching start when he was a student-teacher and assistant coach on Scott Anderson’s staff at Nikiski in 2000, handed Brantley Jr. three of his losses in the last two years, including in the Division II state title games in 2021 and 2022.
In those three losses, Lathrop defensive coordinator Nathan Zody held the Stars’ vaunted offense to 28 points or less.
“He has a very good scheme,” Brantley Jr. said of Zody. “He comes in and does as well as anybody in the state because they have so much familiarity.”
Soldotna did not have large senior classes in 2021 and 2022. While the lack of experience hurt in the three losses to Lathrop, it also meant the team had a ton of experience coming into this season.
Senior quarterback Zac Buckbee was playing in his third state title game so he said he wasn’t even nervous before kickoff.
“We have quite a few three-year varsity starters out there,” he said. “Basically, everyone who started this year played big minutes last year.”
Senior fullback Gehret Medcoff has started since his sophomore year.
“It meant everything to us,” Medcoff said, when asked how bad the seniors wanted a state title. “The first day of practice, the first day of workouts, we all wanted the same thing. It’s just to end with one.”
Seeing his players’ drive, Brantley Jr. said finding motivation for himself was easy. The coach, and two others on staff, took a trip Outside in the summer to learn plays that would keep the Lathrop defense from putting so many players in the box.
The Stars started the season by defeating Lathrop 56-20. But Brantley Jr. said this team was notable because the 10 blowouts leading to the championship did nothing to decrease focus.
In addition to losing in two state football finals, Buckbee also had lost in state soccer finals as a freshman and junior.
“We were just waiting for this all year,” he said. “This kept us motivated and kept us moving. Our coaches, the best coaching staff in the state, had us prepared for a state championship game every week.
“But once we got to this week, it was special. This team was just so locked in and dedicated.”
It showed in the near perfect execution Soldotna pulled off against Lathrop, an 8-3 squad which had gone up on Division I champion West 14-0 in Week 3 before falling 34-20.
The Stars starters scored on all nine of their drives before leaving early in the fourth quarter, only facing third down three times and fourth down once.
The first team was penalized just once, scored on the first play of the drive three times and took an average of 4.1 plays on each scoring drive.
Brantley Jr. said that level of execution against a team as good as Lathrop easily puts the 2023 group in the conversation for the best SoHi team, because the team that executes the best is the team that wins.
The starting backfield of Buckbee, Medcoff, junior Wyatt Faircloth and senior Collin Peck had all started the state title game last year in which the Stars had just three plays that went for over 20 yards.
This year there were seven, including a Medcoff 91-yard score that put the team up 21-0 early in the second quarter. The Stars would lead 42-0 at half.
“I think it’s just mental strength,” Medcoff said about the difference between the 2022 and 2023 title games. “We were ready to go no matter what. It was life or death for us, no matter what the play was, no matter who we were running against.”
The attitude was on full display with senior left guard Tanner Clyde. He said about three plays into the game, he injured his ankle. His gait got continuously more awkward as the game went on.
“I was not going to let anything hold me out of the game,” he said. “I just gotta continue to push through it.
“I would play with zero legs if I had to.”
Both Buckbee and Medcoff said blockers like that make their jobs easy. The blockers were senior tight end Andrew Pieh, junior tight end Talon Gavalis, senior tackles Ala Tuisuala and Hakoa Montoya, guards Clyde and junior Kenai Lepule and senior center Henry Williams.
“We had that drive and bloodlust to do whatever it takes to win this year, no matter what,” Clyde said. “We wanted to sock them in the mouth early on.
“I don’t think our team was going to accept anything but the best this game.”
Medcoff rushed nine times for 198 yards and two scores, Faircloth rushed 14 times for 112 yards and two scores, and Peck rushed six times for 112 yards and one score.
Buckbee had two scoring runs and also threw touchdown passes to Peck and Pieh.
Clyde said he wishes his dad could have seen the game, but said he knows his father was watching from above. Sam Clyde, 36, died in an auto accident in December 2022. Tanner said the strong sense of connection on the team has helped him grieve.
“I love my family,” he said. “Everybody’s my family in this case.”
Lathrop was able to hold the ball for four minutes on the opening drive, but had decreasing success on offense after that, especially when star quarterback Solomon Wade went out with a leg injury early in the second quarter.
“We wish we could have given them a better game,” said Balash, now 3-5 against Brantley Jr. “We came out and we didn’t execute as well as we needed to.
“Once our quarterback got his leg twisted up and out of the game, that really changed us offensively, which put all the pressure on a defense that wasn’t built for that.”
Balash said he’s still proud of his team for a good season, and noted his measure of success is not victories, but helping players grow, learn and become better people.
In particular, he said it will be tough watching senior brothers Jenner Webb and Cody Webb leave, calling them the heartbeat of the program.
Jenner Webb started the game at running back before moving to quarterback due to the Wade injury. He rushed 27 times for 84 yards and also threw touchdown passes to Luke Skinner and Jirah Simeta.
Stars 64, Malemutes 14
Lat 0 0 7 7 —14
Sol 14 28 22 0 —64
Sol — C. Peck 16 pass from Z. Buckbee (O’Reagan kick), 5:59.
Sol — C. Peck 18 run (O’Reagan kick), 2:09.
Sol — Medcoff 91 run (O’Reagan kick), 11:25.
Sol — W. Faircloth 5 run (O’Reagan kick), 8:19.
Sol — Pieh 40 pass from Z. Buckbee (O’Reagan kick), 5:34.
Sol — Z. Buckbee 1 run (O’Reagan kick), 3:00.
Sol — Z. Buckbee 19 run (O’Reagan kick), 10:33.
Sol — Medcoff 33 run (O’Reagan kick), 8:32.
Sol — W. Faircloth 1 run (Kemp pass from Michael), 5:06.
Lat — Simeta pass from J. Webb (Naber kick), 1:16.
Lat — Skinner 35 pass from J. Webb (Naber kick), 4:24.
First Downs 9 20
Rushing Yards 39-137 43-502
Passing Yards 160 87
Comp-Att-Int 8-19-1 5-8-1
Return Yards 12 7
Punts 5-28.4 0
Fumbles 1-1 1-0
Penalties 6-45 1-10
Rushing — Lathrop: J. Webb 27-84, Wade 6-45, Scott 5-8, Hill 1-0. Soldotna — Medcoff 9-198, W. Faircloth 14-112, C. Peck 6-112, Z. Buckbee 5-57, Wolverton 4-16, Kemp 1-2, T. Ohnemus 2-(-1), Dickinson 1-1, Bock 1-5.
Passing — Lathrop: Wade 2-9-0—26, Scott 1-5-1—0, J. Webb 5-5-0—134. Soldotna: Z. Buckbee 5-7-0—87, T. Ohnemus 0-1-1—0.