By George Ferguson/Havre Daily News Sportsemail@example.com
It is a scene that is becoming all too familiar for the Havre High football program: a fantastic season coming to an abrupt and disappointing end at Denton Field in Miles City.
For the third time in the past 10 years, the Havre Blue Ponies' state title hopes were dashed by the Miles City Cowboys as the Ponies were downed 20-12 Saturday afternoon in the Class A playoff semifinals.
The Blue Ponies were also defeated by Miles City on the Cowboys' home field twice in the 1990s. In the previous defeats, the Ponies were blown out by bigger, faster and stronger Cowboy squads. This time the Ponies were in the game right down to the final seconds.
That fact is not one that makes the loss any easier for Havre High head coach Troy Purcell and his players.
"It is a tough loss and these kids are pretty disappointed," Purcell said. "But all of our kids fought their hearts out to the very end and they gave it everything they had. We just came up a little bit short."
"A little bit short" might be a phrase that best describes Havre's entire Saturday. The Ponies were just a little outmanned by a bigger Miles City defensive front that harassed quarterback Gary Wagner all day long.
The constant defensive pressure led to several quarterback sacks and caused Wagner's timing to be off on many pass attempts. The defensive line of the Cowboys also kept the Blue Pony offense from being able to rush the football.
The Ponies finished with minus 30 yards rushing, which led to Havre mustering only 109 total yards of offense and one offensive touchdown in the game. The loss was the first game this season that Havre did not reach the 300-yard plateau in total offense.
Purcell was quick to credit the efforts of the Cowboy defense.
"Sometimes you just run into an opponent that plays really well," Purcell said. "Miles City's defense was spectacular on Saturday. They shut our running game down and they got a lot of pressure on our quarterback. You have to take your hat off to them."
Despite the Ponies' offensive woes, they remained in the game from start to finish thanks in large part to their defense. The Ponies stopped several Cowboy drives that could have cost them more points.
A prime example of Havre's defensive effort came early in the first quarter. After Havre gave the Cowboys the ball in great field position, Miles City was able to drive the ball down to the 1-yard line thanks to two surprisingly big pass plays from Darin Muri to wideout Taylor Harris. But from there, the Ponies were able to stuff the Cowboys' attempts to put the ball in the end zone, limiting them to a 25-yard Harris field goal and a 3-0 lead.
After the Harris field goal, the two teams' defenses continued to battle until the Ponies were finally able to find some offense late in the second quarter. The Ponies went on a 70-yard, five-minute drive that culminated with two big pass plays from Wagner to Daine Solomon. The drive was kept alive when the duo hooked up for a 30-yard strike, and two plays later they hooked up again for a 26-yard touchdown pass that gave the Ponies a 6-3 lead.
And just when it looked as though the Ponies had seized some precious momentum, the Cowboys tied the game by executing a good two-minute drill that enabled Harris to drill a 47-yard field goal just before time expired in the first half.
"I thought that that was one of the big keys to the game," Purcell said. "Miles City was excellent on special teams all day long. Harris' field goals were huge, but they also put us in bad field position with their punts and kickoffs."
While defense and penalties plagued both teams in the first half, the Cowboys took the second-half kickoff and launched a methodical six-minute, 72-yard drive that resulted in a 1-yard TD plunge by fullback David Stevenson.
The score gave the Cowboys the lead for good at 13-6. That drive was kept alive by a huge 42-yard pass play from Muri to Harris when the Ponies had the Cowboys backed up on third and 14, deep in their own territory.
While Havre still had trouble finding an answer for the Cowboys' defensive front, Miles City's running game was just getting warmed up. Less than three minutes after Stevenson's touchdown, his brother Mikel ripped off a 37-yard touchdown run that gave the Cowboys a commanding 20-6 lead as the fourth quarter began.
But as much momentum as the Cowboys had seized, it was still a game dominated by defense and the Blue Pony defense did what it could not to let the team die.
With the Cowboys backed up to their own goal line early in the fourth period, Muri fumbled a botched hand-off in the end zone and Stephan Brown recovered it to pull the Ponies to within eight points at 20-12 after a failed two-point conversion attempt.
Despite the offense continuing to struggle, the Pony defense came up with several big stops late in the quarter, including a final one that gave the Ponies one last shot with less than a minute to go.
In the end it was the Cowboys' defense that was up to the task, and the Ponies' season came to an end on a Wagner interception on a fourth-down play from Havre's own 23-yard line.
While the Ponies' staggeringly low offensive output surprised many, the Cowboys were also limited on that side of the ball. Miles City gained just 269 yards of total offense, including a season-low 131 yards on the ground, which was 200 yards below their season average.
David Stephenson led the way with 65 yards rushing, while brother Mikel chipped in with 54. The surprise to Purcell came in the passing of Muri. He was an efficient 5 of 9, passing for 138 yards. Travis Venn caught three of those passes for 75 yards and Harris caught two balls for 63.
"Our defense played great against a great team," Purcell said. "They hurt us with a couple of big pass plays and that was something we did not expect. But I am really proud of the way all of our kids played and how they fought right down to the end."
The Ponies got a game effort from Wagner. Playing in the biggest game of his young career and running for his life most of the contest, he still managed to complete 13 of 24 passes for 139 yards and a touchdown. Solomon's record-breaking career came to an end with a fine game as well. He caught seven balls for 62 yards and the Ponies' only offensive touchdown of the game.
While Havre's season is now over at 10-2 , the Cowboys (10-0) will move on to Dillon to face the No. 1-ranked Beavers (10-0) in the Class A state championship game on Saturday afternoon.
"I definitely think this was successful season," Purcell said. "If we can go 10-2 and go to the semis every year, then we're doing something right."
"I just have to thank the kids and my assistant coaches like Jason Christensen, Brian Jenkins, Mike Leinwand, Dana Roe, Ryan Joy and Jeremiah Nitz for all of their hard work and for a tremendous season."
Havre 0 6 0 6 - 12
Miles City 3 3 14 0 - 20
MC - Taylor Harris 25 FG, 6:15 left-1Q
HAV - Daine Solomon 26 pass from Gary Wagner (kick failed), 5:56-2Q
MC - Harris 47 FG, :01-2Q
MC - David Stevenson 1 run (Harris kick), 7:19-3Q
MC - Mikel Stevenson 37 run (Harris kick), 4:25-3Q
HAV - Stephen Brown fumble recovery in end zone, 10:29-4Q
First downs 8 8
Rushes-yards 24-(-30) 44-131
Passes 13-24-1 5-9-0
Passing yards 139 138
Total offense 109 269
Punts-yards 6-199 5-125
Fumbles-lost 1-1 2-1
Penalties 4-28 7-59
RUSHING: Havre - Colby Mader 3-9, Scott Robinson 7-5, Solomon 1-3, Wager 13-minus 47. Miles City - D. Stevenson 22-65, M. Stevenson 6-52, Darin Muri 14-34, team 2-minus 18.
PASSING: Havre - Wagner 13-24-1 for 139 yards. Miles City - Muri 5-9-0 for 138 yards.
RECEIVING: Havre - Solomon 7-62, Marc Mariani 2-34, Robinson 2-25, Cody Tchida 1-15, Rick Houim 1-3. Miles City - Travis Venn 3-75, Harris 2-63.