Nikiski nearly pulled off an upset in the opening week of the football season, but it was Lathrop that escaped Nikiski with a 44-41 win Friday night at Nikiski.
Leading 28-26 at halftime, Lathrop received help in the form of senior Kaelen Lee, who racked up 125 rushing yards in the game.
“It’s outstanding, it comes from the heart, and he’s one of our hardest workers, and it means a lot to him his senior year,” Lathrop head coach Rusty Ham said. “This has been a losing program all of his career, and he has a chance now with new coaching and a new attitude that we can get some victories.”
For a school categorized in the Alaska small-schools division, Nikiski sure put up a fight against Lathrop, a program two classes up in the large-schools division.
Twice Lathrop was able to run a Nikiski punt return in for a touchdown, as senior Hunter Desmond ran 70 yards on the Malamutes’ first possession of the game, then ran 75 yards to start the second half to bolster Lathrop’s lead.
“It’s a great building block, for us to get a victory against a state-championship caliber team,” Ham said. “It’s a great confidence boost.”
Leading by three points with just over four minutes to go in the game, Lathrop needed to stop a Nikiski offense that managed to make its way to within 35 yards of scoring, but needed 1 yard on a fourth-down attempt. Lathrop stopped them in the Bulldogs in their tracks, and with the momentum, worked its way down the field to score on a 13-yard run from Lee with just over two minutes remaining, extending the lead to 44-33 after a successful two-point conversion.
“They’re a school of over a thousand, and we have 250 kids, so I’d say that’s pretty much a win for us,” Nikiski head coach Ted Riddall said. “I told them we got 48 minutes to play, and as long as there’s time on the clock, there’s an opportunity. The belief is to keep playing.”
Nikiski did battle back to score once more with a 4-yard run from senior Stephen Hartley, but that was the final note in a climactic finish between the two sides.
Hartley led Nikiski with 171 rushing yards and four touchdowns, including the final score with 50 seconds remaining.
“He had a monster game,” Riddall said. “He’s the kid in the backfield that’s going to give us the extra yards. He’s a senior and he’s been here before, so it’ll be a great year for him and if he runs like that it’s going to be hard for defenses to stop him.”
Hartley said the motivating factor for him and the team was that the Bulldogs never trailed by much.
“With the linebackers and the backfield we have, we were just able to pound it down the field every time and gain yards,” Hartley said. “We had motivation, we’ve been working hard, we didn’t want to let up, even though we were down on the scoreboard.”
Junior quarterback Seth Carstens threw for 54 passing yards, and used senior Tristin Apted as a target to complete 6 of 8 passes, including an exhilarating 12-yard bomb that set up Hartley’s final touchdown.
“I was really excited, it was a sweet catch,” Hartley said. “It pumped the whole team up.”
Apted made an interception midway through the second quarter and ran it in for a touchdown to give Nikiski a brief 26-22 lead, but Lathrop worked its way down the field on the ensuing drive to take the lead for good.
“We’re still learning how to finish, and today we finished strong,” Ham said. “We know that it’s never over until it’s over, and we showed it tonight. One play there could’ve made a difference.”
Even with so few seconds on the clock at the end, Riddall said Nikiski still held out hope that something could happen.
“Obviously, we went down and scored, and if we had gotten an onside kick, we would’ve won it,” he said. “There were a couple of plays in the game that didn’t go our way, there was a holding call that we didn’t like, but bottom line is we’re not going to hang our hat, we had an opportunity to get better and we did, and it will propel us into next week against Skyview.”
Nikiski will play Skyview next Friday at home at 6:30 p.m.