FAIRBANKS — Lathrop’s season-ending 53-8 loss to Juneau-Douglas on Friday was a game of two halves for the Malemutes on their homecoming night and in the Railbelt Conference football finale for the struggling host team and the playoff-bound Crimson Bears.
The Malemutes trailed only 15-0 in the first half against a Juneau-Douglas squad that, combined with its win at Lathrop High School and Wasilla’s 23-22 come-from-behind victory over Palmer in the annual Potato Bowl, secured a co-championships and the second seed in the Railbelt and a home playoff game next week in the capitol city.
The Malemutes (1-5 Railbelt, 2-6 overall) were wrapping up on their tackles in the first half, where they also had impressive plays defensively — defensive tackle Cole Foster pouncing on a Crimson Bears fumble at the Lathrop 18-yard line and Lathrop stopping eventual game-high rusher Jerick Ibias for a 2-yard loss when the visitors had a first down and goal at the 1 at the end of the first half.
“Those kids came out and they played intense and aggressive. They were tackling, they were taking the extra step and they were doing all the things they needed to do,” Lathrop head coach Jason Gazewood said.
The Crimson Bears also did what they needed to do to assure a home playoff contest and a sweep of their conference rivals in the Interior. Juneau-Douglas (5-1, 7-1) won 57-0 at North Pole earlier this season and downed West Valley 29-8 last weekend in Juneau.
“In the first half, we were just putting the ball on the ground, and it was fumbles galore,” Ibias said of Juneau’s three fumbles in the first half, two of which Lathrop recovered. Each team finished the night with four fumbles and lost two apiece.
“In the second half, we just calmed down and got ourselves composed, and we just played like we usually do,” said the senior, who finished with 24 carries for game highs of 186 yards and three touchdowns.
The Crimson Bears’ composure led to Lathrop’s sixth straight loss after the Malemutes enjoyed a 2-0 start earlier this season.
“Juneau is a big team. They’re talented, they’re skilled and they have a bunch of things going for them,” Gazewood said.
Ibias scored on a 24-yard run in the second quarter and added a 40-yard scamper in the third and a 13-yard dash in the fourth quarter.
Following Ibias’ 40-yard scoring run, Chris Seminario, a running back, wide receiver and cornerback, provided Lathrop’s lone touchdown by returning Adam Soto’s ensuing kickoff 86 yards with 10:23 left in the third quarter.
“I just wanted to score, we needed to put points on the board,” said the 5-foot-7, 150-pound sophomore. “Everyone blocked great, they gave me decent holes. I had great vision, I saw the holes, I stiff-armed the kick and took it from there.”
Cunningham threw a two-point conversion pass to reserve quarterback Robert Tanner to make the score 22-8.
Seminario almost had two touchdowns. He was open in the end zone in the first half when he leaped to snag a pass from Cunningham but missed it.
Seminario, though, was playing with an ankle injury he sustained in last week’s 37-20 nonconference loss at Houston.
“When I jumped, I jumped off it wrong and it (ball) slipped through my hands,” Seminario said. “It was a routine catch I should have had.”
Cunningham entered the contest with 1,756 passing yards. He finished his junior season with 1,820 yards following a Friday night which he completed eight of 22 passes for 64 and was intercepted four times.
Kaelen Lee was Lathrop’s leading rusher in the finale with 60 yards on eight carries.
Samson Nauer contributed two scores for Juneau-Douglas — the game’s first points on a 40-yard run at the end of the first quarter and a 99-yard interception return with 7:40 left in the third after Lathrop had fourth and goal at the Juneau-Douglas 5.
“At first, I thought they were running a 5-and-out, but I stayed back and I saw them come at me,” Nauer, who picked off Gabriel Cunningham’s pass near the right sideline, said. “I was just lucky enough that I was right there.”
Alec Calloway caught two touchdown passes from Juneau starter Phillip Fenumiai — a 27-yarder in the third quarter and a 14-yard grab in the fourth quarter.
Sean Niumataevalu, who occasionally played as a Wildcat quarterback for Juneau-Douglas, threw a 12-yard touchdown to Brian Brassfield in the fourth quarter.