By George Ferguson/Havre Daily News Sportsfirstname.lastname@example.org
It isn't very often that a high-powered team can play one of its worst football games of the season against a strong postseason opponent and live to fight another day.
According to Havre High head coach Troy Purcell, that is exactly what happened Saturday afternoon at Blue Pony Stadium as the No. 4-ranked Ponies edged the Sidney Eagles 28-24 in the first round of the 2003 Class A football playoffs.
The Blue Ponies overcame three turnovers, 110 yards in penalties and a surprising Sidney passing attack that accounted for three touchdowns.
The victory over Sidney runs Havre's record to 9-1 on the season and earns the Ponies a trip to the quarterfinals round of the playoffs. They will travel to Libby on Saturday afternoon.
"I thought that was definitely one of our worst games of the season," Purcell said. "We made way too many mental errors, and turnovers killed us. But the kids overcame a lot of adversity and still got the win. And in the playoffs you have to take a win no matter how you get it done, so we're happy we're still playing football."
Initially, things looked very good for the Ponies as they scored on their first possession for the sixth time this season. Daine Solomon took the game's opening kickoff and returned it all the way to the Eagles' 31-yard line. Two plays later Gary Wagner found junior wideout Coda Tchida in the corner of the end zone for a 28-yard touchdown pass that gave the Ponies an immediate 7-0 lead.
The lead stood up through most of the first quarter. However, Sidney put together a five-minute drive that ended with a 28-yard TD pass from Josh Kringen to tight end Jace Sullivan. However, Sidney failed to convert a two-point conversion, leaving the score at 7-6.
Then came the turnovers. On the Ponies' ensuing possession, Colby Mader fumbled the ball on his own 33-yard line. Less than a minute later Kringen hit Cole Prevost for a 27-yard TD strike that gave the Eagles their only lead of the day at 12-7.
Both of Kringen's first half TDs came as a result of blown coverages, which, according to Purcell, was something that plagued his team all day long.
"Both of those big plays were just blown defensive assignments," Purcell said. "The defensive mistakes and penalties were just a lack of focus. It really shows us that we have a lot of work to do this week."
After capitalizing on the Blue Pony turnovers, it appeared as though the Eagles would break the game wide open. On their next possession, they held the ball for more than four minutes and again marched into Blue Pony territory. This time, however, Kringen's pass found Blue Pony Marc Mariani instead of Prevost. Mariani took the interception back 65 yards for the go-ahead score. It was Mariani's third interception in two games and his ninth this season.
"Marc has been making big plays all season," Purcell said. "And that interception was one of the biggest of the game and of the season."
After Mariani's pick, Kringen wasn't done turning the ball over. On Sidney's next possession, Kringen coughed up the football at the Sidney 39-yard line, which Rick Hoium recovered for the Ponies. That turnover led to a Wagner 3-yard keeper less than a minute later and gave the Ponies a 21-12 lead. Sidney again tried to rally just before the half, but Kringen was picked off by Tchida to the end the period.
The two teams then traded scores in the third period. The Ponies hit the end zone at the 5:40 mark when Wagner found Scott Robinson on a 40-yard pass on a third-and-18 play. That score ballooned the Ponies' lead to 28-12. But the Eagles answered right back on a 1-yard dive by Scotty Huft.
The Ponies drove the ball into Sidney territory to start the fourth quarter, but a Wagner fumble ended that drive and allowed the Eagles to pull within six points when Kringen hooked up with Gresh Melby on a 27-yard TD strike. After their fourth failed conversion, Sidney was left trailing 28-24.
The Ponies tried to run the clock down, but their third costly fumble happened when Robinson dropped a Wagner handoff with a little more than two minutes to play. Sidney tried to rally for the winning touchdown, but the Ponies' defense held on a long fourth-down play to preserve the tight win.
"In a sense, this game was good for us," Purcell said. "We made a lot of mistakes, but when you can get a win and learn from those mistakes it is always a good thing."
In all, the teams combined for six turnovers, with each team converting two of them into scores. Havre racked up 343 yards of total offense. Wagner threw for 195 yards and 2 TDs, and Robinson carried the ball 10 times for 77 yards. Mader also carried the ball nine times for 42 yards on the day.
The Eagles put up 285 total yards of offense, including 186 yards on the ground against the top-rated defense in the state. Kringen threw for 99 yards and three touchdowns on only five completed passes.
Defensively the Ponies got a huge effort from senior Matt Boucher. Boucher totaled 20 tackles on the day, including a quarterback sack.
Unfortunately, the win did not come without a price for the Ponies. Starting defensive end Tyler Wheeler was lost for the remainder of the season as he suffered a broken leg during the contest.
While Purcell knows that his team is capable of playing much better football, he is still feeling good about the fact that it will get another opportunity to do so next weekend.
"I think that for a good portion of the game we were lacking a lot of focus and I take full responsibility for that," Purcell said. "But the kids know that they didn't play well and that we have a lot of work to do this week. It is also nice to see that they still found a way to win even with all of the adversity we had on the field."
"These kids are a good group and they learn from their mistakes," Purcell added. "Now we have to go back to work and get ready for Libby."
With the loss, the Eagles' season comes to an end with a 4-5 record while the Ponies will now prepare to travel to Northwest A champion Libby (7-1). The game between the Blue Ponies and Loggers is scheduled for 1 p.m. on Saturday.
Sidney 0 12 6 6 - 24
Havre 7 14 7 0 - 28
Havre - Coda Tchida 28 pass from Gary Wagner (Wagner kick)
Sidney - Jace Sullivan 29 pass from Josh Kringen (Run failed)
Sidney - Cole Prevost 27 pass from Josh Kringen (pass failed)
Havre - Marc Mariani 65 interception return (Wagner run)
Havre - Gary Wagner 3 run (kick failed)
Havre - Scott Robinson 40 pass from Gary Wagner (Wagner kick)
Sidney - Scotty Huft 1 run (pass failed)
Sidney - Gresh Melby 27 pass from Josh Kringen (run failed)