PUYALLUP — Damian Aalona said that when he threw the ball from the Yelm 45-yard line down the left side, and saw Eastside Catholic’s Tyson Weaver step up to pick the ball off easily with 52 seconds left, he knew that everything was lost.
The Tornados — bearing the No. 1 seed in the 3A state tournament but still very much new blood at the top of the ranks — had gone toe-to-toe with No. 2 Eastside Catholic for four quarters, fought the Crusaders to a standstill in the trenches, and scratched out offense when they could, but the perennial power had taken back the lead with a long touchdown on a screen pass late, had stolen momentum, and now, had the ball with less than a minute left.
Until they didn’t, because Kyler Ronquillo wasn’t done yet.
The senior, committed to play for Portland State next fall, kept going on his wheel route, and hit Weaver — himself a three-star recruit — square in the chest. Weaver went to the ground, and Ronquillo kept going — and after a step, everyone at a packed Carl Sparks Stadium realized he had the ball, going untouched into the end zone on a minor miracle of a touchdown.
“You know me, every time, I’m going to go and make a play,” Ronquillo said. “I don’t care who it is on me, whether he’s got stars or not, he even had the ball in his hands — I’m going to take it from him. I’m a dawg, for real.”
And that, plus a jump pass of a two-point conversion for good measure, and one last defensive stop, earned Yelm its first 3A state title, capping off an undefeated season with an improbable, come-from-behind 20-13 win.
“I had faith. I always have faith in my team,” Ronquillo said. “I know we can execute, and I believe in every player on this team to make a damn play. Eastside was a good-ass football team, but we wanted it more. That’s all it is: we wanted it more.”
The roof covering the main stand at Sparks Stadium casts a long shadow, out to the hash marks on the near side of the field, and even after the sun rose up Saturday morning, the shade left a solid rectangle of snow on the Yelm side of the field. As soon as the Tornados got to the turf, they went to work, and as warm-ups began, there was a “Y” stamped out in footprints at the 50-yard line.
They might have been new to the scene, but the Tornados made themselves right at home. And the packed stand on the snowy sideline, filled to the brim and then some with red and black, made the atmosphere even more in Yelm’s favor.
“This is like our whole town,” Aalona said. “It means a lot. I grew up in Yelm, and seeing everyone come to our state championship is so big.”
Aalona finished his junior campaign on the grandest of stages with a 16-for-27 outing, throwing for 249 yards and three touchdowns.
And in a low-scoring game with all on the line, all three scores were huge in their own way.
The first came just before the halftime buzzer, completely flipping a game that had started off with nothing good for Yelm on offense. After punting twice and turning it over on downs inside the 10-yard line, the Tornados put a two-minute drive together, and Aalona found Aden Schaler alone in the end zone from 22 yards out to turn a shutout of a first half into a 6-3 Yelm lead going into the break.
The second came in the third quarter, just after Eastside Catholic’s second short field goal of the day tied things up at 6-6. On second-and-2, coach Jason Ronquillo went into the bag of tricks, and 55 yards later on a flea flicker from Aalona to Tre Smith, the Tornados were back on top.
But after both touchdowns, Yelm went for two and failed — a turn of events that loomed large when the Crusaders finally found the end zone on a slip screen, then kicked the extra point to take a 13-12 lead.
So for the second straight week, the Tornados needed to come back.
“We’re all saying that we can do it,” Kyler Ronquillo said. “We’ve done it in weeks before, we did it against Bellevue. I looked at the guys and said, ‘We’re going to do it again.’”
And after four plays got Yelm near midfield, Aalona’s third touchdown — nearly an interception, followed by the miracle play — did it again.
Ronquillo finished with 196 all-purpose yards, bringing in a team-high 117 receiving yards to go along with 53 on the ground and 26 in the return game. Brayden Platt ran it 15 times for 66 yards.
But for four quarters, minus about a minute, the real stars of the day for Yelm came on the defensive side of the ball.
Eastside Catholic didn’t manage a first down until the second quarter, only getting on the scoreboard with a field goal after a shanked punt gave them the ball at the 24-yard line.
Even when they did get moving, the Crusaders found Tornados in the backfield all day long. Yelm finished with seven tackles for loss, including three sacks, and limited their opponents to 277 total yards.
“I think both defenses are top-tier,” Kyler Ronquillo said. “We prepared well.”
Two of those sacks came on third down — the Tornados held Eastside to 4 of 11 on conversions — as did Platt’s final, game-sealing interception that let Aalona take one final knee and kick off the rowdy celebration on the Yelm sideline.
“We all came up together, we all played together when we were little,” Aalona said. “Just to get to our final goal, it’s big.”
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