By George Ferguson/Havre Daily News Sportsfirstname.lastname@example.org
It seems like just last week that the Havre High football team was locked in playoff battles against the likes of Bigfork, Miles City and Laurel. But that was 2002.
It seems like just yesterday that Havre was beating the Sidney Eagles 28-14 in Sidney in their first game of the season, but that was in August.
Saturday, the Blue Ponies will be in the middle of postseason football once again. Havre will kick off the 2003 Class A state football playoffs with a rematch with the vaunted Sidney Eagles at Blue Pony Stadium.
Despite an impressive 8-1 overall record, the No. 4 Blue Ponies finished the regular season in second place in the Central A conference. Havre was a Daine Solomon punt return away from a close win over the Belgrade Panthers back on Sept. 26 and a second consecutive conference championship.
Instead, Solomon's apparent game winning touchdown was called back on a clipping penalty. Belgrade held on for a 16-14 win and laid claim to the 2003 conference championship.
While Havre rebounded to win all of its remaining games in convincing fashion, veteran Blue Pony head coach Troy Purcell is not reflecting on what might have been. Purcell understands postseason football well and knows that the time is now for his youthful and exuberant Blue Ponies.
"We are very excited and ready to play this game," Purcell said. "It would have been nice to have that first-round bye and get an extra week of rest, but we are feeling very fortunate that we at least get to play this first-round game at home. We will be ready to go on Saturday."
Not only does Purcell understand that playing Sidney at home is ultra important, but he stresses the importance of getting his young and talented team to not look ahead, despite the fact that the Ponies handled Sidney to start the season.
"It's hard because this group of kids is very loose during the week," Purcell said. "But when it comes time to play the game, the kids know that we don't take any opponent for granted. Because of what we did in the playoffs last season, they understand that in the postseason everything starts over and there is no tomorrow."
At times this season, it appeared that there wasn't going to be a tomorrow for Sidney. The Eagles (4-4) opened the season with back-to-back home losses to the Ponies and Williston, N.D., and also suffered a setback on Sept. 19 at Miles City, leaving their record an uncharacteristic 1-3 with four games remaining in the season.
However, the Eagles responded under longtime head coach Mike Gear and won three out of their last four games to grab the third playoff berth in the Eastern A.
"We have definitely had our ups and downs this season," Gear said. "But we played in a very competitive conference this season and I think having a lot of very difficult games has helped us improve and grow as a team as the season has gone. Hopefully, we are where we need to be going into the playoffs."
Purcell would also agree with Gear's assessment of the Eagles. He and his Blue Pony players understand that the Sidney team they faced in August is not the same team that is coming into Blue Pony Stadium.
"From what I have seen, Sidney has improved quite a bit since we faced them," Purcell said. "Especially their quarterback Josh Kringen. He can do a lot with the football and is running their option offense very well right now. He can also hurt you with the pass."
Besides Kringen, the Eagles have the other key component of a successful option attack. Fullback Gary Melby led the Eagles in rushing this season. He and Kringen provide the nucleus for the Eagles' ever-present running game.
"We are very concerned with Sidney's ability to run the football," Purcell said. "We have to take care of those guys and not let them pound on us. But I also have a lot of confidence in our defense. They have been playing well all season. Hopefully, they will be up for a big test on Saturday."
To say that Havre's defense has been playing well might be a huge understatement. The Blue Ponies are No. 1 in Class A football in total defense and points allowed. Through nine games the Ponies are allowing a scant 9.7 points per contest.
Meanwhile, defense has also been the main concern for Gear in this weeks preparation for Havre. The Blue Ponies are averaging a shade under 400 total yards of offense and have been scoring over 30 points per game. Havre is first in Class A in passing and second in total yards.
"Obviously, Havre's offense is our primary concern," Gear said. "They have a good amount of tremendous athletes on that side of the ball and they are a very dangerous team when they have the football."
Which is why the Eagles' best defense may be their offense. Gear believes the key to his team's success against Havre will be sustaining drives and keeping quarterback Gary Wagner and Co. off the field as much as possible.
"With their running game, Sidney will definitely try to control the time of possession," Purcell said. "That is why it is important for us to go out there and put points on the board like we have done all season. If we can do that and put the game in our defense's hands, I feel like we have a pretty good chance."
Both head coaches also have plenty of playoff experience, especially Gear, who has seven Class A state championships on his resume at Sidney. Purcell also had a long playoff run at Eureka before guiding Havre to two-straight postseason appearances and a trip to the 2002 state championship game.
Both head coaches also understand that despite what happened in the regular season, the postseason is a fresh start for both teams and previous records and previous games mean very little.
"This is obviously the time of year when you want to be playing your best football," Gear said. "I think that we have, at times, gotten much better this season and we have also had some setbacks. But our kids are focused and I think they feel good about where we're at right now as a football team."
Said Purcell: "We know that Sidney is a much better team and they are one of our rivals. Because it is the playoffs and because there is no tomorrow, I expect that this will be a close, physical game. Hopefully, we'll be ready to play and we can come out and get a win."
The game between the Blue Ponies and Eagles is set to kickoff at noon on Saturday at Blue Pony Stadium. The game can be heard locally on 610 KOJM-AM. The winner of the first round contest will move on to face Libby next Saturday afternoon.