Playoff champions riding on Dog Bowl football game

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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) In 2018, the Lathrop Malemutes celebrated on West Valley’s field after winning the Dog Bowl and claiming the conference title along the way. West Valley watched as their playoff hopes fell to the side, with another year missing out on the post season.

The Lathrop Malemutes host the West Valley Wolfpack in the Dog Bowl to decide the Railbelt Conference champions. (Aaron Walling/KXDF)

Jump forward a year later, both programs go to battle once again, but this time the Dog Bowl means more than usual. Normally playoff seeds and implications are resolved by Week 8 of the high school season. However, that is not the case as this year’s battle between the two inter-city rivals, serves as the Railbelt Conference championship.

“It definitely makes the game bigger,” says Lathrop’s Quarterback Jace Henry. “It’s a rivalry game with playoff incentives on the line.”

“Feeling pretty good, pretty confident,” said West Valley’s quarterback Shaun Conwell about his team heading into the Dog Bowl. “We’re just pushing trying to get this first conference since 2001. So that’s really a big deal.”

West Valley comes into this game with a chip on its shoulders. They blew two games this season where they had double-digit leads, but when the conference slate started the red and gold found their stride. They took down the Palmer Moose and the North Pole Patriots to secure a spot in the postseason. A program that was enveloped in the swimming incident during the offseason have rose like a phoenix out of the ashes to make the playoffs.

West Valley’s offense is built on the legs of Justin Cummings. The senior running back has a penchant for long touchdown runs. In numerous games this season, Cummings has reeled off top play after top play for the Wolfpack. However, it is not just Cummings that leads the offense. West Valley can also air it out with Shaun Conwell and his plethora of pass catchers. Some of those players are seniors, and they want to get the win in their final Dog Bowl.

“It’s their last year, they got to go all out,” said Conwell.

One of those receivers is Avery Weston. Weston is your do it all type of player, returns kicks, makes great catches and blocks down the field.

West Valley’s defense has improved throughout the season as well. The defensive line is not your prototypical big men up front, but they have shown a knack of finding the quarterback in the back field as of late.

Lathrop on the other hand is the defending conference champs. They are led by their potential offensive player of the year in quarterback Jace Henry.

Henry is a walking highlight reel, from his hurdles, deep touchdown passes and punishing runs. Throughout the season, Lathrop has looked to their QB to get the team in a position to win. After losing a close game to West Anchorage, the Malemutes looked prepped for a conference run. They took care of business against North Pole in the Mayor’s Bowl, then beat Palmer in town to punch their tickets to the playoffs.

“It’s definitely great to not have that worry about playoffs anymore. We can fully focus on just beating West,” said Henry.

Lathrop’s defense also knows how to be disruptive, with their front seven finding the right gaps to blow up plays. In turn, this opens up the door for the secondary to make big plays through interceptions and key third down stops. The front seven consists of playmakers like Josiah Opp and Markeith Matthews, while behind them is players like Jhon Rones and Andre Williams.

“It’s very exciting. I’ve played a lot with the guys all throughout my youth years and all throughout my high school as well,” said Opp. “It’s been great growing with them as teammates as people, as men and I’m excited to be here.”

This game has a lot riding on it. The winner hosts the Eagle River Wolves next weekend for the semifinals of the Division II playoffs, while the loser heads down South to take on the daunted Soldotna Stars.

The 2019 Dog Bowl is on Saturday at 5 P.M. at Lathrop High School.

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