After so many near-misses and heartbreaks, the Fruitland High football team had to overcome its biggest challenge yet to finally taste state championship glory.
The Grizzlies wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Sophomore quarterback Cole Eiguren accounted for three touchdowns — completing all seven of his passes — and Fruitland capitalized on two key second-half turnovers to topple rival Shelley 35-28 in a 3A state championship thriller Saturday at Middleton High.
Fruitland came in with a 2-7 record in 3A state title games since 2006 — including an 0-4 mark versus Shelley. The Grizzlies’ postgame huddle was filled with talk of exorcising demons. Of rewriting history. And of tearing down a certain weight room banner that has tormented the players for years.
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“It’s really special,” Fruitland coach Ryan Tracy said. “We couldn’t have written it any better. Deep down, we wanted to face Shelley. We wanted to take another shot at them, and it means the world to us because they made us earn it.”
Fruitland senior Phoenix Ruffin rushed for 77 yards and caught a touchdown pass from Eiguren, juniors Ethan Villalobos and Jordan Eggers each recorded a 15-yard TD run, and the Grizzlies (9-2) used a balanced attack to topple the previously unbeaten Russets (11-1). Seven different players contributing at least 25 yards of offense.
And that banner? It will be coming down Monday, if not sooner.
“We have a sign up in our weight room that says ‘0-4 versus Shelley,’ ” said senior Casey Rodriguez, who had a crucial interception and 52 receiving yards. “Being able to take that sign down now, it means a lot, especially with this team, this family that we’ve built.”
Fruitland led 14-10 at halftime, with Eiguren’s 1-yard TD run and 5-yard pass to Ruffin providing the margin. Villalobos made it 21-10 early in the third quarter, but Shelley again responded to close the gap to 21-18.
The game swung on a pair of Fruitland takeaways in the fourth quarter. The first was a muffed punt, on which the Grizzlies cashed in with Eggers’ fourth-and-inches scoring run for a 28-18 lead.
Moments later, Rodriguez stepped in front of a Bryon Leckington pass and returned it to the 21, setting up Eiguren’s run for what appeared to be the knockout blow.
“The turnover battle was huge,” Tracy said. “I think if we don’t win that battle, we lose the game.”
Shelley rallied behind Leckington, who rushed for 122 yards and threw for 253, including two TD passes. A Shelley field goal made it 35-28 with exactly one minute remaining, but Fruitland senior Tyler Eiguren secured the onside kick to seal the victory.
“It’s the best feeling in the world,” Ruffin said. “Shelley’s a really good team, but we came out and executed a great game plan. Everyone made plays for us.”
Cole Eiguren finished 7-for-7 for 129 yards through the air, adding 25 yards and two scores on the ground. The Grizzlies were outgained 392-348 in total offense, but they held a 2-1 edge in turnovers and only committed one accepted penalty.
“We never thought we were underdogs,” Cole Eiguren said. “We knew we could compete, and it took a full team effort. The line blocked great, the running backs ran great, and it feels pretty awesome to not throw any incompletions. It was almost a perfect game.”