By George Ferguson/Havre Daily News Sportsemail@example.com
It's simply the biggest thing in Big Sandy. Sure, the dominance of the girls basketball teams always draws headlines, but it's the Pioneer football team that now has people talking.
After a dramatic 28-20 win over perennial Eastern C power Wibaux last Saturday in the Class C state semifinals, the Pioneers are just a mere win away from carving their own place in Montana football history.
Big Sandy head coach Scott Chauvet admits his Pioneer team is passing through uncharted territory as it prepares for Saturday's Class C state championship tilt at Drummond.
There has also been a dismal cloud hanging over the heads of Chauvet and his players this week - the controversy surrounding last weekend's ejection and subsequent suspension of star Pioneer end Mason Ophus.
This morning, state District Judge David Rice denied a last-minute attempt by Ophus to get back into the championship game. Ophus had asked for a temporary restraining order allowing him to play. After a 50-minute hearing in Havre, Rice ruled against Ophus.
Ophus was ejected after receiving two penalties for unsportmanlike conduct. The first was for ''taunting'' the opponents when he intercepted a pass at the line of scrimmage, jumped over two opponents and raced down the sideline for an apparent touchdown.
The referee said Ophus was waving the football at the opponents and called the touchdown back.
Chauvet said Ophus extended the football at about the 10-yard line and didn't gesture with it.
In the third quarter, Ophus and Wibaux lineman Matt LaBar were both assessed 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. They were rolling on the ground and ''Mason pushed LaBar out of the way when they were in the pile,'' Chauvet said. No punches were thrown, he said.
However big the loss of Ophus is to the Pioneers, Chauvet, a consummate professional, has kept a positive spin on the entire matter. He and the rest of the Pioneers are just looking forward to playing football.
"What people have to understand is that one player does not make a football team," Chauvet said. "I said back in August that our depth is going to be a huge reason why we will win the conference championship, and this is just another area in which we have kids that will step up and do their job.
"Mason is a great talent and a great person and we will miss him on the field on Saturday," Chauvet added. "But we have to stay positive and move on from this. Our kids have a lot of heart and determination and they are ready to step up and get the job done on Saturday."
In order to obtain the state trophy, the high-powered Pioneers (11-0) will have to travel to and defeat a defensively dominant Drummond team that has yielded just six points all season long. Drummond, 11-0 on the season, is coming into Saturday's battle off of back-to-back playoff shutouts over Belt and Harlowton.
"What impresses me about Drummond the most is that they are young," Chauvet said. "This probably won't be their last go at this. But there is no question that their defense is a concern for us. The good thing is that we also have a very good defense. We still feel like our offense is very difficult to stop so we'll just have to see what happens on the field on Saturday."
Indeed, the Pioneers are bringing one of Class C's most prolific offenses in recent memory to their first state title appearance. Big Sandy has multiple 1,000-yard rushers in senior running back Skylar Pearson and senior quarterback Gage Brumwell. Paul Reishus and Adam Jesperson have also had success at times in the Pioneer's high-octane running attack.
But Chauvet said the key to moving the ball on a defense like Drummond's will be the play of his offensive line.
"If our line can hold its own like it did against a big team like Wibaux, then we'll have a chance," Chauvet said. "Alex Thornton and Aaron Andrade are playing on another level right now and if they play like that again Saturday, then Gage and Skylar will do their job. They will get it done."
Despite being labeled as a defense-oriented team, the Trojans don't exactly sputter on offense. Drummond put up 59 points on No. 1-ranked Belt and last week scored 44 points on a very good Harlowton team. The Trojans also have multiple 1,000-yard rushers in tailback Chase Reynolds and fullback Mac Anderson. Drummond will rotate quarterbacks and they have a deep-threat receiver in junior speedster Brett Graybeal.
So what exactly does Chauvet expect when his high-powered running game meets the immovable Drummond defense on Saturday.
"It will be a war for sure," Chauvet said. "Combined with the loss of Mason and their defense, everybody is already counting us out. But we understand that if we play well and stay in the game at the half, we will be right there.
"We have been a third- and fourth-quarter team all season long. If we can control the ground game and control the clock, then hopefully we can wear them out in the second half and put some points on the board. But it will be tough, there is no doubt about that."
The Pioneers have already had a dream season and are now in a position that no Big Sandy football team has ever been in. The hopes of an entire community rest on the shoulders of Chauvet, his coaching staff and his 30-plus players. Pressure? Maybe a little, but he is enjoying every minute of it.
"This has been an awesome experience so far," Chauvet said. "The entire town is behind us and the support from the community has just been amazing. I have gotten phone calls and e-mails from all over the state and from alumni who are coming to the game. We even have a huge faction of people coming from Missoula on Saturday. It has just been amazing."
Also not forgotten is the fact that the Pioneers are part of a trio of teams from Chouteau County that will be trying to bring home state titles Saturday afternoon. Fort Benton will look to repeat as Class B state champions when that team visits Baker, and Geraldine will host Custer-Melstone in the Class C six-man title game.
"That is pretty amazing that we are all still playing right now," Chauvet said. "Fort Benton and Geraldine have had a lot of success recently and we're the new kid on the block who is trying to get to where they are.
"Everybody who plays high school football dreams of having a chance to play for a state championship and now we are just one of two teams that still have that opportunity," Chauvet added. "Our kids are focused and determined and they have a lot of heart."