The Lathrop High School football team won the school’s first-ever state football championship Saturday, taking the Division II title in Anchorage.
To do that, the Malamutes of Fairbanks had to beat a dominant Soldotna Stars team that had won the championship the previous eight seasons.
Lathrop coach Luke Balash says the team had not spent the season focused on beating Soldotna. Instead, Balash describes the team’s success as a byproduct of learning to be physically, mentally and emotionally capable young adults.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Luke Balash: (It’s) not just football. We really focus on the inner game of their mental and emotional development and their life skills in terms of how they interact with the general public and people around them and all those things. And we don’t even really talk a whole lot about championships or rings or anything, we’re really just trying to be great at football, and great at life. The cornerstone of our program is “EMAL: Every Man a Leader.” You know, we break our huddles with EMAL, and we sign off messages with EMAL, and it’s on the back of our practice jerseys. And we’re just constantly going back to that. Even now, I’m telling them, “Hey, we’re not state champs, we’re still EMALs.”
Casey Grove: How have those things been difficult during the pandemic, for the football players? And I guess just in general, how has COVID-19 been, you know, difficult for your guys?
LB: These two seasons have been the most difficult in my career. Honestly, last year, we didn’t get to do anything that we normally do to build culture and to build the EMAL spirit, the social-emotional stuff. It’s hard to build relationships and have good team spirit when you can’t connect with each other and spend time together, you know, outside of football. So that’s what’s been a real blessing this season, we did get to have breakaway. We have food together every day, along with study hall and other different things we do until practice hits, building team spirit. And keeping the kids socially and emotionally healthy was definitely extremely difficult. We lost kids to social emotional issues, you know, some kids dealing with depression or different things. And that was hard. But I think if you stopped and looked at the general student population, compared to our football players, and even athletes in general, I think that our kids are doing much better socially, emotionally, in terms of health, because they’ve stayed engaged with football and are able to be part of something.
CG: As you were saying that, I was thinking about some of the seniors you must have on your team that have been there four years now. I wonder if you could tell me about some of your seniors that will be graduating this year after this big win.
LB: We’ve actually got a core of kids whose older siblings and cousins and stuff came through before them. So like Jarren Littell and Eddie Coleman and Keegan Laughlin. Their parents have been involved with our program now for 10 years, a lot of them. So these were little brothers who were growing up and were talking about, “Hey, someday we’re gonna win a state championship.” And really, it’s their older brothers and cousins who built the foundation, and really built the EMAL spirit into the team that then we were able to launch off of to win one this year. So really, this victory was years in the making.
CG: If you could walk me through the championship game, how did you guys ultimately come out on top?
LB: The old saying is, “Defense wins championships,” right? And our D coordinator, Nate Zody, who’s a Lathrop alumnus, he did a great job designing the defense along with the help of the rest of our coaching staff. And the defense just played great, even though, I mean Soldotna had 370 yards, I think, and scored four times. But there were a lot of stops. I think we had four stops altogether between punts and turnovers on downs and an interception. So I think we had four stops and that’s huge, especially against SOHI, to get four stops is a big deal. And then offensively, you know, we had a rough week the week before against Eagle River. And we really felt like we hadn’t played a really good defense in almost a month, since we had seen East Anchorage High School. And we were out of sync and out of step. And we just didn’t play very well against Eagle River. So we worked really hard last week to get our offense on step, ready to play. And we saw things on tape from when we played Soldotna before, but also tapes of them playing other teams, and we basically just made a playlist of all the stuff that they struggled to defend and made that our game plan.
CG: So then, you know, the final seconds tick off the clock, you guys are ahead, what was the celebration like when you’d really won it?
LB: Oh, man, lots of happy tears. Again, a lot of these kids have been with us for a long time. A lot of these kids have played together since they were sixth graders and stuff. So just happy tears and hugs and I got a water bath. You know, they dumped the ice water on me. That kind of stuff. But it was just fun. It’s joyous. It was the end of a long journey together. But, in the same breath, it was kind of sad, too, because now it’s over, right? We don’t get to play anymore. So there’s a glad-sad emotion that’s there that’s very real and authentic. And so some of our kids were crying, not only happy tears, but also sad tears. And that’s totally appropriate in that circumstance, I think.
CG: I guess there was a pretty pretty warm reception there in Fairbanks, too. I saw some pictures. What was that like?
LB: Oh, that was awesome. Yeah, to get guided into town by fire trucks and a police escort and a hero’s welcome, you know, back to Fairbanks. A lot of people texted me and wrote me during the week, “Hey, bring it home, bring it home,” and then we brought it home. Such a cool deal to arrive that way. And I told our guys, “Hey, enjoy this because there aren’t many people that get to have an escort like this home.”