By George Ferguson/Havre Daily News Sports/ email@example.com
For the third time in just over a year, the Havre Blue Ponies and Laurel Locomotives will play a very important football game.
But, unlike the previous two meetings, this game will be played on the Locomotives' home field as the No. 4- ranked Ponies travel to Laurel tonight for a pivotal Central A showdown.
Last season, the Ponies and Locomotives split two meetings, the first of which came in Havre when the Ponies routed the Locomotives at homecoming in front of a statewide television audience.
However, two months later Laurel got sweet revenge at Blue Pony Stadium during the Class A state championship game. Laurel left town with a 21-19 win and the 2002 Class A state championship trophy.
With 2002 in the past, the two teams will meet tonight with a lot riding on the outcome of this football game.
Havre is sitting at 6-1 overall, but the Ponies are 2-1 in conference play after routing Lewistown last Saturday night. Laurel is 4-3 on the season but undefeated thus far in conference play.
Playoff seeding is what the two teams will be battling for tonight. Both Havre and Laurel are assured of a playoff spot, with Belgrade in the driver's seat as far as the conference title is concerned. The outcome of this contest could alter the way the three teams will be seeded when the playoffs begin in two weeks.
"This is a very important game because if we beat Laurel, we are at least assured of the No. 2 seed and that means we would be at home for the first round of the playoffs," said Havre High head coach Troy Purcell. "It would also mean that we still have a chance to win the conference title if Laurel can go on and beat Belgrade next week. So there is a lot riding on this game."
While the Ponies' playoff future is first and foremost on Purcell's mind, he also isn't ruling out the fact that last November will definitely be motivation for his troops tonight.
"We watched the state championship game to prepare for this game and we watched Jeff Fischer kneel on the ball and watched them celebrate," Purcell said. "We also put some newspaper clippings up in the locker room this week to remind the kids of the last time we faced Laurel. I think there is definitely a sense of pride in our kids and they want to win this football game badly."
If the Ponies are to win in Laurel tonight, they will have to pass one of their toughest tests to date. Laurel is leading the conference in total defense and yards allowed. Something will have to give as the top defense in the conference meets the top offense in Havre's high flying aerial attack.
"Laurel is very good defensively," Purcell said. "They are very big on the line and they have a lot of speed in the secondary. But the kids believe in our offense and what we are trying to do. I have a lot of confidence in our kids. If we play well, I think we will be able to move the ball."
On offense the Locomotives had to replace their top two players from the 2002 state championship team. Quarterback Jeff Fischer is now the backup QB for MSU-Northern and all-conference tailback Trevon Hegel is also gone.
Senior all-state defensive back Zach Fox has taken over the quarterbacking duties and has done a solid job. It appears the Locomotives have also found an answer for Hegel at tailback. With the same offensive line that controlled the Ponies in the state title game, Purcell said it is still business as usual in Laurel.
"Laurel is still very good offensively," he said. "They run a lot of the same offense that they did last season, and Zach Fox has done a good job with their option package. Their offensive line is still huge, so it will be a tough battle for our defensive unit."
But Havre's defense - much maligned in 2002 - may be the difference between the two teams from last season. The Ponies rank second in the Central A Conference in yards allowed per game. Havre is getting solid contributions from the likes of defensive tackle Tyler Wheeler, linebacker Craig Kallenberger and cornerback Marc Mariani, who has a team-high four interceptions this season.
"We feel very good about our chances on both sides of the ball," Purcell said. "We are obviously a very strong team offensively, but we also know that our defense gets after teams and they can pick us up if we're struggling."
"I think this game will come down to turnovers and who can score on the other's defense," Purcell added. "It is going to be a dogfight and hopefully we can execute and get the job done."
The game between Laurel and Havre is set to kick off in Laurel at 7:30 p.m., and can be heard on 610 KOJM-AM.