By George Ferguson/Havre Daily News Sportsfirstname.lastname@example.org
For the first time this season, the Havre Blue Ponies will have something in common with their opponent - a winning record.
But as the Ponies head to Columbia Falls for tonight's non-conference tilt with the Wildkats, wins and losses are not the focus of this contest.
Smoky conditions from forest fires burning in the Glacier National Park area have caused air quality concerns in most of the Northwestern portion of the state, and the Columbia Falls and Whitefish areas were under stage two air alerts Wednesday and Thursday, forcing officials from both of the Class A schools to consider moving tonight's game to Havre on Saturday night.
"We talked to the Columbia Falls people on Thursday night and they said that they practiced outside and everything seemed OK," said Havre High head coach Troy Purcell. "So for now, it looks like the game will happen down there and the smoke shouldn't be a concern."
With the smoke issue seemingly cleared up as of press time, Havre's main concern may then be a Wildkat team that is off to a surprising 2-0 start with convincing wins over Corvallis and Hamilton in the first two weeks of the season. And while Columbia Falls was picked to finish third in the Western A conference this season, Purcell said that they might be a division title contender thanks in large part to a very dangerous offensive attack.
"Columbia Falls looks to be a very solid team with a lot of big play capability," Purcell said. "They are somewhat similar to us in the fact that they have a quarterback who throws the ball well and can get out of the pocket and move around. And they also have some real strong kids at the wide receiver position."
Wildkat quarterback Brad Bennett (6-2, 190) has been the starter for the past two seasons and has racked up impressive passing totals over the past two years as well as all-conference honors in 2002.
Bennett also has the luxury of working behind a veteran offensive line led by senior Ben Sturtz (6-0, 225) and junior center Kevin Sheppard (6-0, 250).
While Purcell admitted that Bennett and the Wildkats' speedy wide receivers will present a formidable challenge for his defense, scouting and preparing for this game was an even bigger challenge.
"We got the film on Columbia Falls late in the week so that put us a little behind," Purcell said. "But we have went over things. We will go over some more film on the bus so I think the kids will be ready to go."
"At this point, I think we know what they are going to do on both sides of the ball and we'll just have to go out and execute our game plan. Hopefully, things will work out."
The defensive side of the ball may be where tonight's contest is decided. Havre brings one of Class A's most potent offenses across the mountains to test a Columbia Falls defense that Purcell hopes to exploit.
Quarterback Gary Wagner has had a phenomenal start to his varsity career. In his first two games, Wagner has thrown for almost 500 yards and five touchdowns. Wagner has only been intercepted once, giving him an outstanding quarterback rating.
Meanwhile, the Ponies bring a very tough defensive unit into tonight's game. Despite giving up Jolly Righetti's 201 rushing yards in last weekend's home opener with Whitefish, the Pony defense has surrendered just 21 points in two games, while doing it with nine new starters from a defense that was much maligned a year ago.
"I see some things in the film that we should be able to do against their (Columbia Falls) defense," Purcell said. "Offensively, we put in some new formations this week that they won't have seen on any of the films of us and that should give us a few more options."
"Defensively, I have been really happy with the way our kids have played so far," Purcell added. "I think we are prepared for what we will face down there. It becomes a matter of not making mistakes and adjusting to whatever they do."
The game between the Ponies and the Wildkats is scheduled to kick-off at 7:30 p.m. tonight in Columbia Falls and can be heard locally on 610 KOJM-AM.