By George Ferguson/Havre Daily News Sports/ firstname.lastname@example.org
It wasn't pretty, but the Havre High football team did what it had to do in playoff football - survive and advance.
Now a refocused and energized Blue Pony team will take to the road to face the Libby Loggers Saturday afternoon in the quarterfinals of the 2003 Class A football playoffs.
The Ponies (9-1) are coming off of a sloppy, but emotional, win over Sidney last Saturday at Blue Pony Stadium. The game was marred by six turnovers - three by each team - and a mountain of penalties.
Those mistakes were the first things that HHS veteran head coach Tory Purcell looked to clean up this week as he prepared his team for the Loggers.
"Playoff football is do or die and you can't have three turnovers and 110 yards in penalties," Purcell said. "The kids know they got away with one against Sidney and already this week I have seen a lot more focus and determination from them in practice.
"The one thing that makes me feel good about last week," Purcell added. "Is that we had all of that adversity to overcome and we still put up good offensive numbers and we made some big plays on defense. It is nice to know that we're not that far off."
While the Ponies can put their 28-24 win over Sidney and all the adversity that went with it behind them, one thing that they will have to get over is the crucial loss of defensive starter Tyler Wheeler.
Wheeler suffered a broken leg during Saturday's game and is out for the remainder of the year. Purcell said that Bill Zuelke and Stephen Brown will step into replace Wheeler on the defensive line for the remainder of the playoffs.
"Losing Tyler Wheeler is a huge loss for our defense and our team," Purcell said. "He was one of our trusted guys on defense and he is an outstanding player. But, I have a lot of confidence in the guys that are going to step in and fill his spot."
And because of the tough opponent this week, the Blue Pony defense will have to be extra sharp.
Libby (7-1) cruised to the Northwest A regular season championship this season. The Loggers have slipped into the playoffs as a team fairly unnoticed by anyone.
Despite the fact that the Loggers suffered just one loss all season on their way to a conference title, usually reserved for Whitefish, they have not been ranked all season and will undoubtedly have something to prove when their postseason gets under way on Saturday.
"From the film that we have seen, Libby is a very sound football team and it does not surprise me at all that they have had this good of a season," Purcell said. "They are explosive on offense and they have size and speed on both sides of the ball."
The Loggers are under the direction of a first-year head coach and Oregon native Neal Fuller.
Fuller inherited a talented group that went just 2-6 in 2002. Leading the Loggers into the playoffs is 6-2 senior quarterback Vance Vincent.
Vincent has held the starting position since his freshmen year and is a strong-armed pocket passer with dangerous speed. Vincent also has talent at wide receiver in 6-4 junior Blaine Baker and 6-3 senior Kyle Stantus. The Loggers also have a capable running back in senior Kevin Bertelson (6-2, 210).
"Libby has a talented group of core players on offense," Purcell said. "They are very balanced between run and pass, but the quarterback really makes them go. He is our key on defense. We just have to key on him and hope our defensive package is good enough to get the job done this weekend."
One thing that Purcell is also counting on is the fact that the Loggers have not seen a wide-open, multiple-formation passing attack like the Blue Ponies are bringing with them on the 390-mile trip down Highway 2.
Quarterback Gary Wagner is leading Class A in all passing categories and the Ponies have one of the top-rated offenses in the state.
"Libby hasn't really seen our style of offense much this season," Purcell said. "With Whitefish, Polson and Columbia Falls, they have faced a lot of good tailbacks and option-oriented offenses. I think they will be very tough to run against, but hopefully our passing game can loosen them up a little and we can get some things done and put some points on the board."
At stake on Saturday is a trip to the semifinal round of the playoffs. The winner of Saturday's contest will travel to the winner of the Miles City/Frenchtown quarterfinals game.
For Havre, they are looking for a second-straight berth in the coveted final four of Class A football.
"We're not looking ahead right now at all," Purcell said. "These kids are much more focused than they were last week. We know that anyone of these eight teams can go all the way, including Libby. So we are prepared to go down there and play the best possible football that we can and hopefully we'll be left standing when it is over."
The game between the Ponies and Loggers will kick off at noon on Saturday in Libby. The game can be heard in Havre on 610 KOJM-AM.