By George Ferguson/Havre Daily News Sportsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Every so often in high school football, coaches will look at their schedule and just know what games are bigger than others.
And even though every conference game is important in Class A football, Havre High head football coach Troy Purcell has known for a while that tonight's trip to Belgrade is going to be one of the most important games the Blue Ponies play in 2003.
"There is no doubt that this is the biggest game that we have played this season, and it is against the best team that we have seen so far," Purcell said. "Everybody knew that Belgrade was going to have a really good football team this season. We knew that having to go down to play them in their place was going to be big for both teams."
Indeed, for the first time in recent memory the Panthers - ranked fifth in Class A football - were picked to contend for the Central A title this season by both the coaches and the media. And while Belgrade is coming off of a 5-3 season in which it qualified for the 2002 playoffs, this year the team is not sneaking up on anyone.
"We all knew that Belgrade was young and talented last season, and they ended up surprising a lot of people," Purcell said. "But now they are much more experienced and they have a lot of tremendous athletic ability on the football field. It is no surprise in how well they are playing this season."
The Panthers, 4-1 on the season, are playing better than well. They have reeled off four straight wins after opening the season with a loss at Miles City. Last weekend the Panthers manhandled the once-vaunted Lewistown Eagles, 48-13. They also have wins over quality opponents like Hardin and Billings Central.
But the No. 2-ranked Ponies (5-0) aren't exactly playing bad football either. Havre comes to Belgrade with two straight shutouts to its credit, including a 34-0 thrashing of conference foe Livingston last Friday night.
"This is a huge test for both teams," Purcell said. "We feel like we are doing some good things on both sides of the football and the last couple of weeks our defense has just been dominating. I would really like to see that trend continue."
If that trend is to continue, the Ponies will have to contain one of Montana's leading rushers in Belgrade senior Jake Kallestad (5-11, 215). In five games this season, Kallestad has rushed for more than 800 yards, including 234 yards last week against Lewistown. He is averaging more than 30 carries per contest. But, what makes Kallestad even more dangerous is that he is surrounded by a strong supporting cast like senior quarterback Caleb Salisbury and speedy receivers Mike Ball and Tyler Miller.
"Jake Kallestad is a bruiser and he is as good as any running back we have faced," Purcell said. "But it's not easy to prepare for a team like Belgrade because they won't just run straight at us. Salisbury is a tremendous athlete and he can move in their option attack and he has a rifle for an arm. They have a very dangerous offense."
Like Belgrade, the Ponies will rely on a potent offense. Junior Gary Wagner is leading Class A in passing yards, pass efficiency and touchdown passes. He has already eclipsed the 1,000-yard passing mark this season. Wideout Daine Solomon is also tops in the Central A conference in receiving yards and touchdowns and is leading the conference in kick return yardage as well.
Overall, Havre is leading the Central A in passing offense and total offense, while the Panthers are first in rushing and second in total offense.
So with two high-octane offenses on the field tonight, what does Purcell think the main key to this pivotal battle will be?
"I think that the game will come down to ball control and turnovers," Purcell said. "We want to score points, but we want to keep Kallestad and Salisbury off the field. That means we have to sustain drives. We also have to take care of the football and not give them anything easy. When you have two teams that are so evenly matched, one touchdown could be the difference in the game."
While on the field the clock and turnovers may be key, Purcell also believes the right frame of mind also may be paramount.
"I'm sure that the Belgrade coaches and players know how big this game is because the winner will obviously have an edge on the conference championship," Purcell said. "But our kids are very focused and they know how important this one is as well. One of the good things is that a lot of our players have been through this type of atmosphere before. Hopefully, they can use that experience to stay focused and play good football."
The game between Havre and Belgrade will kick off tonight at 7:30 at Panther Field in Belgrade and can be heard in Havre on 610-AM KOJM.