By George Ferguson
The game of football has been said to be a game of inches. And if it were not for a couple of inches and a mere two points, the 2003 Havre High football team would be going into Sidney on Saturday night as the defending Class A state champions.
Instead, they fell just short. Now the 2002 season is nothing more than a memory and Havre High head coach Troy Purcell and the rest of the Blue Pony players will only use last November's loss to Laurel in the state championship game as motivation for the 2003 campaign, which will get underway on Saturday night when the Ponies hit the road to take on the always-talented Sidney Eagles.
"I think that last year's experience of winning a conference championship and going all the way to the state championship game will be extremely beneficial to this year's team," Purcell said. "The kids that are still here took a lot of positive things away from the whole playoff experience, and I think that it will serve us well this season."
The Ponies magical run all the way to the state title game did come with a price, however. Gone from that incredibly talented 2002 team are all-state performers Justin Kegel, Steve Heberly, Tyson Roe, Levi Briese and Steven Harmon.
Normally when a team loses that much talent to graduation, they might receive the rebuilding label. But Purcell isn't sure that his team will have to rebuild just yet.
"The kids that we lost were all extremely talented football players and we will miss their veteran leadership," Purcell said. "But we have some very exciting players that I think will step in and really shine both offensively and defensively."
At quarterback, junior Gary Wagner was the backup to Kegel last season and he will now take over a talented and explosive Pony offense that will once again be expected to light up scoreboards in 2003.
"Gary Wagner has come a long way from last season," Purcell said. "He has really learned the system and worked hard to improve and he has improved a tremendous amount. He has gotten so athletic over the past year and I think he will really shine in this offense as the season goes on."
Wagner will have senior Daine Solomon at wide receiver and junior Scott Robinson at tailback, giving the Ponies a very solid triple threat at the skill positions.
"We are youthful in game experience," Purcell said. "But Daine Solomon is as a good a wide receiver as you will see on a football field and he is going to make some things happen this season.
"Scott Robinson is ready to step in and take over the backfield," Purcell added. "The nice thing about having such athletic kids as we do is we will be able to be very versatile on offense and able to keep a lot of teams off balance."
While the Ponies should have no trouble putting points on the board despite all the key losses, defense may be Havre's strong side of the ball this season.
Although Solomon and junior Brett Michels are listed as the only two returning starters on defense, Purcell said that his team should be very solid in that area.
"Again, I would say we are somewhat young and inexperienced defensively," Purcell said. "But we are strong and fast and that is something we will just have to use to our advantage because we are going to face a lot of pretty quick teams this season."
Purcell lists players like Chris Peterson, Shane Howard and Terry May as personnel that will step in and get a lot of varsity reps on defense this season.
Speaking of the regular season, the Ponies will probably find out where they stand in the first two weeks of the season with games at Sidney and their home opener with the Whitefish Bulldogs on Aug. 30.
"We have always played a very tough non-conference schedule," Purcell said. "But I think it is to our advantage because you find out what you are good at and your weaknesses get exposed really quick when you play talented teams like that right off the bat."
And the Eagles are expected to be every bit as talented as the 2002 Sidney team that stunned the Ponies 35-20 in Havre last fall. Despite several losses at key positions like all-state fullback/linebacker Lico Sifeuntes, the Eagles will have plenty of explosiveness on the offensive side of the ball.
"Sidney will be a real test for our defense," Purcell said. "Mike Gear is a legend in Class A coaching and I expect that they will run a lot of option at us like they always do.
"Even though we haven't been able to scout them much, we know that they have a very talented and quick quarterback and they reloaded in the backfield so they are going to be very tough to defend."
Quarterback Josh Kringen and fullback Gary Melby will operate behind an offensive line that will average 275 pounds giving the Eagles another solid option attack that has lead them to seven Class A state championships under Gear.
Purcell admitted that playing a game this early in the season means that the team that makes the least amount of mistakes will definitely have the edge.
"I think Sidney will be tough to defend, but I also think we are going to spread them out defensively so we will be tough to defend as well," Purcell said. "The first couple of games will come down to who holds on to the football and who makes the least amount of penalties and that is what we will need to focus on Saturday night."
The Blue Ponies and Eagles will kick off the 2003 Class A season at 7:00 P.M. at Sidney High School Stadium. The game can be heard in Havre on 610 a.m. KOJM.