By George Ferguson
The 2002 football season ended very much like it began for the Havre Blue Ponies with a dramatic finish to a pressure packed game. While the Ponies came within two points of capturing the Class A football state championship, this season will not be measured as a season of "what could have been," but more as a season of "what it was."
The Ponies began the 2002 campaign with a home game against highly ranked Whitefish, and it was a game that took some dramatic twists and turns. In the second overtime period, trailing by seven points, senior running back Levi Briese scored a touchdown on a five-yard run that brought Havre within one point. Havre head coach Troy Purcell opted to go for a game winning two point conversion again going to Briese. But this time Briese's run to the right side of the field was stuffed at the goal line leaving Havre two points shy of a season opening victory, 20-19.
In week two, the Ponies remained at home to face the no. 1 ranked Sidney Eagles. To put it quite simply the Eagles vaunted rushing attack was too much for Havre. The Eagles cruised to a 35-20 victory leaving Havre sitting at 0-2 on the season. Despite that record Purcell remained unfazed in his teams capabilities.
"We played really tough back to back opponents to start the season," Purcell said. "And we were trying some new things and working with a lot of kids that were new to the varsity team. But we knew if we got some things worked out that we would improve."
Indeed, the Ponies took to the road for the first time in the third week of the season and took out their frustrations of the previous two weeks on the Glendive Red Devils by routing them 32-0. The victory not only gave Havre a much needed win, but Purcell believes it was one of the cornerstones of the season.
"Glendive was a big turning point for our team," Purcell said. "The young kids had a couple of tough games to gain some experience. We made some adjustments and it was a big confidence booster to get that win."
Another turning point in Havre's roller coaster season came two weeks later. After a 42-14 route of the Browning Indians in Browning, the Ponies returned home for homecoming and a Saturday night televised matchup with Central A conference favorite Laurel.
From the very beginning of that contest, the Ponies scorched the Locomotives through the air taking a commanding 28-6 halftime lead. Havre eventually ran away from the Locomotives 42-25. Quarterback Justin Kegel had one of his biggest nights of the season throwing for three scores and 239 yards and running for 81 yards and three more touchdowns.
"The Laurel game was a huge win for this program and for our season," Purcell said. "To beat them like that when they were favored to win our conference was a big lift for our team."
If beating Laurel was a major step forward, Havre took a couple steps back the following week in Lewistown. With several key players suffering nagging injuries, the Pony offense could not find the end zone as Havre fell to the defending state champions 27-6.
Despite that loss, the Ponies could still secure a playoff berth with a win the following week in the season's final home game against Belgrade. Not only did the Ponies win, they rode Briese all the way as he racked up an amazing 257 yards rushing en route to a 33-6 victory.
Going into the final regular season game, Havre had locked up a playoff berth. However, the Ponies still had a chance at winning the conference championship. Thanks to Belgrade's upset of Lewistown and their own 35-0 shutout of Livingston that is exactly what happened. Capturing the Central A title was a good moment for Purcell and his team.
"That was one of our goals when the season started and we accomplished it," Purcell said. "It was this school's first conference championship since 1999. That is something that the coaches and players are very proud of."
The conference title also rewarded the Ponies a first round bye in the playoffs and home field advantage through at least the first two games as well.
After defeating Bigfork in overtime in the quarterfinals, the Ponies hosted the no. 1 ranked Miles City Cowboys on a chilly and snowy day at Blue Pony Stadium. Havre played perhaps its best game of the season sending the Cowboys home with a 19-12 loss in very hard fought game.
"That was a tremendous win for our program," Purcell said. "The kids played their hearts out that day and they found a way to get it done."
The stunning victory over Miles City set up the season ending showdown with Laurel and while everyone now knows that Havre came up short, Purcell doesn't sell himself or his players short on the great season that came to an end that day.
"This season was still a tremendous success in my view," Purcell said. "These kids did great things on the football field and they were led by a great group of seniors. To make it to the state championship game is something that doesn't happen very often and those kids' names will be on that trophy forever. That is something we all will always be proud of."
While Purcell attributes the rise of his team from an 0-2 start to his coaching staff and senior leadership, he also lends credit to his entire team for never quitting and persevering.
Besides a great team effort, the season led to some great all-time individual achievements as well for a couple of seniors.
"Justin Kegel broke all of the single season passing records and Levi Briese broke the single season record for tackles," Purcell said. "The whole team just really had an outstanding season. This year was a total team effort."
Purcell also says that the success on the field could not have happened without the support from off the field.
"Myself, the assistant coaches and all the players will always appreciate all of the tremendous support we got from the fans and the entire community throughout this season," Purcell said. "It has been tremendous all year long."