By George Ferguson
Last week Havre High head football coach Troy Purcell felt being one of the final eight teams competing for the Class A state football championship was a special feeling. That feeling has only doubled now as his team prepares to face the No. 1-ranked Miles City Cowboys Saturday at Blue Pony Stadium in the Class A semifinals.
The Ponies come into Saturday's playoff tilt fresh off of a thrilling 27-26 overtime victory over the Bigfork Vikings and carry a 6-3 record on the season. Meanwhile, the Cowboys come into Havre ranked atop the latest Class A power poll and have an unblemished 9-0 record. They are also fresh off of a 42-7 drubbing of the Polson Pirates last Saturday in Miles City.
While the two teams had decidedly different games in the quarterfinals, Purcell is still confident as his team goes through final preparations for tomorrow's contest.
"The kids are feeling really good right now," Purcell said. "I think we are both mentally and physically prepared for this game."
Purcell has also taken to some extra measures this week to loosen his team up a little bit in light of this pressure-packed affair. He held a night practice under the lights on Thursday at Blue Pony Stadium.
"There is definitely a fine line between being loose and being focused," Purcell said. "You want the kids to be fired up, but you don't want them to get carried away with it either. So we have tried to loosen them up by having some fun this week."
Purcell attributes much of his team's mental state of mind to the Ponies' veteran leaders.
"One of things that really helps us out mentally is that we have such great senior leadership on this team," Purcell said. "All of our seniors are very focused and the other kids respond to that."
As for the on-the-field game plan, Purcell feels that it has come together this week.
"We feel really good about our game plan right now," Purcell said. "It looks very solid in practice but we'll have to just wait and see how it plays out."
The Cowboys come into Blue Pony Stadium with a lot going for them. They have reeled off nine straight wins, and have a veteran team with 24 seniors.
Veteran head coach Ed Rohloff, who has been at the helm in Miles City for 25 years, has guided the Cowboys to five state titles, including a 42-7 defeat of Havre in the 1994 title game. That victory over the Blue Ponies began a run of three consecutive state championships for Miles City in the mid-1990s.
Rohloff comes into Saturday's clash feeling good about his team, but also concerned with the explosive Blue Pony offense.
"Things have been going very well for us lately," Rohloff said. "But the Blue Ponies have some very dangerous kids and their speed makes me nervous."
"Their wide receivers all have big play capabilities, and when you have a quarterback that throws the ball very well they are going to get some big plays."
Coincidentally Rohloff's concerns about Havre's offense are the same concerns that Purcell has with Miles City's vaunted option attack.
"They (Miles City) are definitely a big play team," Purcell said. "They have speed at wide receiver, tremendous running backs and their quarterback runs the option very well. This is going to be a big test for our defense."
The Cowboys are led by senior quarterback Matt Gittings (6-1, 175) and speedy wideout Ace Berry. They also have explosive running backs in senior Andy Plowman (5-10, 170) and junior Mike Stevenson (5-11, 175).
While both coaches have major concerns about the other's offensive game plan, Rohloff says that the keys to his team's success will be on defense and taking care of the football.
"We are obviously going to have to be very sound defensively," Rohloff said. "And we are going to have to take care of the football. We have been very fortunate in the turnover department this season. At this point you just can't afford to make mistakes like turnovers, especially against a team like Havre."
While Purcell understands that his defensive unit will have to play very well against the Cowboys, he also believes that turnovers and scoring will be key factors for his team on Saturday.
"We know we are going to have to score points against Miles City in order to be successful," Purcell said. "We also know that we have to take care of the football and not make mistakes on either side of the ball."
Purcell also takes solace knowing that his team is still in the playoff picture despite struggling offensively against Bigfork's eight-man pressure defense.
"We definitely did not play our best game offensively against Bigfork," Purcell said. "They are a great football team and they put a ton of pressure on us the entire game. Miles City will bring pressure this weekend, but they play a completely different style of football on defense."
While the Ponies have home field advantage, Rohloff believes his team is prepared to play on the road.
"It seems to me that we have always played pretty well on the road," Rohloff said. "But this is going to be a tough game on both sides of the football."
While no football coach will prognosticate on the eve of a big football game, Purcell does feel good with the fact that his team is positive and prepared.
"I feel very good right now," Purcell said. "We are doing everything we can do to put our kids in the best possible situations to succeed."
The semifinal clash between Havre and Miles City will kickoff at noon on Saturday at Blue Pony Stadium. The game can be heard locally on 610-AM KOJM.
Since this is an MHSA-sanctioned game, Havre High activity passes cannot be used. Ticket prices are $6 for adults and $5 for students.