The players and coaches from tiny Fruitland High School in Idaho saw themselves as ambassadors for their state's brand of gritty football when they ventured 550 miles to play in Saturday's Football for Families fundraising showcase in El Dorado Hills.
They made believers out of those who found their way to Oak Ridge High School for a rare morning game, the first of four games that rounded out the two-day, seven-game benefit for foster families.
Behind their immensely talented and inspiring leader, senior quarterback-linebacker Joey Martarano, Fruitland overcame injuries, the loss of an early lead and the fatigue of so many players playing both ways in rising temperatures to top Casa Roble 29-22.
"It's just a great experience to see how we stack up against a big California school, and it's a big win for us," said Martarano, who has led his school to five state championships in three sports. "Maybe this will help for other Idaho teams to be able to come down here."
Though it has played in Idaho's last six 3A state title games, Fruitland (3-0) is a school of 500 students, nearly three times smaller than Casa Roble (1-2), which has a team that platoons its players and a sophisticated spread offense rarely seen in the Gem State.
Fruitland overcame injuries to 6-foot-4, 240-pound tight end-defensive end Alec Dhaenens, a Boise State verbal recruit (left knee injury) and sophomore running back-defensive back Kody Graves (fractured right leg).
But the Grizzlies still had Martarano.
The 6-4, 230-pounder has already verbally committed to Boise State to play linebacker, but the gifted slugger could be a first-round pick in baseball's free-agent draft in June.
"I've coached 35 years and I can't remember having another one like him," said Fruitland coach Bruce Schlaich. "He does it all. He feels no pressure. The bigger the situation, the more he steps up."
With Martarano leading the way, Fruitland held Casa Roble on its 12-yard line early in the fourth quarter, then drove the Grizzlies 88 yards, rushing for the stay-ahead touchdown and two-point conversion with 6:08 left.
After Fruitland forced a Casa Roble fumble near midfield with 5:17 to play, Martarano helped the Grizzlies run out the clock with several up-the-gut runs with defenders clawing and scratching at him to try to jar the ball loose.
"Joey is a man-child, an excellent football player," said Casa Roble coach Norm Ryan. "He made the plays that had to be made. He wanted it more than anyone on the field."
Martarano, who completed eight of 10 passes for 134 yards and rushed for 67 yards on 18 carries, said the injuries to Dhaenens and Graves only steeled his resolve despite the fatigue, heat and "air that is a lot different than in Idaho."
"We wanted to win it for them," Martarano said.
Fruitland limited Casa Roble's usually potent offense (471 yards per game coming in) to 224 total yards.
The Grizzlies pressured quarterback Peyton Wilfley (12 for 22 for 122 yards) throughout the day, sacking him five times and allowing few big pass plays.
Fruitland also held area rushing leader Kody Jones (averaging 205 yards coming in) to 64 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries.
"We knew it was going to be a struggle because all our players are 48-minute ironmen," Schlaich said. "But they're extremely tough, physically and mentally, and we're just so proud of them. To come down and beat a school like Casa Roble is a big feather in our cap."