By George Ferguson/Havre Daily News Sports/ email@example.com
The No. 1 ranked Havre High football team is in the midst of a three-game stretch of very tough showdowns with nonconference opponents.
And Saturday's road trip to Whitefish was being billed as the biggest of them all.
The Bulldogs and Blue Ponies come into Saturday's rivalry game with matching 2-0 records.
However, the similarities may stop with records because the Bulldogs are feeling the crushing effects of two season-ending injuries in consecutive weeks.
Two weeks ago in a win over Hamilton, the Bulldogs lost junior quarterback Taylor Ferda to a back injury that he originally suffered last spring during track season.
To make matters worse for head coach Mike Ferda's team, the Bulldogs lost senior tailback Jolly Righetti to a torn anterior cruciate ligament during their 38-22 win over Corvallis last weekend.
Righetti was widely considered the top high school senior in the state of Montana. He holds the Montana single game rushing record of 464 yards, which he set last year in a game against Columbia Falls. He finished the 2003 season with 1,994 yards and 24 touchdowns, and overall, he has rushed for more than 3,000 yards in his career.
"We're definitely facing some tough adversity right now," Ferda said of the injuries. "Jolly was a three-year starter on both sides of the ball and our team leader. Both he and Taylor had big dreams for the future and what has happened to them is not fair.
"But our job as coaches is to help the kids move on from this and still believe that we are a good football team," he added. "We have to keep the kids on task and help them stay focused, and hopefully we'll come out of this a better football team."
The losses of Righetti and Ferda have also thrown a monkey wrench into Havre's preparation for its archrival. According to HHS head coach Troy Purcell, it has been somewhat difficult in deciding exactly how to defend a Whitefish team that ran such a straight-forward offense before the injuries.
"We're not really sure what they are going to do against us," Purcell said. "Almost everything they ran went through Jolly Righetti in one way or another. So now we are just trying to prepare the kids for their normal offense that they run, but we will also be prepared for them to throw the ball more. Right now, it's kind of a guessing game."
Meanwhile, Ferda is preparing his team for a very difficult home game with the top-ranked team in the state the way he always does.
"We're really trying to keep things simple for the kids this week," Ferda said. "Our offense has been designed for the tailback position the last three years. We have three junior running backs and they are all a little different. Right now our challenge is just trying to find the right replacements at running back and quarterback."
On the line Saturday is the Burlington Northern Santa Fe traveling trophy. The Ponies crushed Whitefish 42-7 in Havre last August to take the cup away from the Bulldogs.
Before the Bulldogs' injuries, this game was considered a toss up because both teams come into the weekend playing very well. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, their season is obviously in question and Ferda said that Saturday's game will be a difficult one for his team.
"Havre has a very good football team and they have some very good players back this season," Ferda said. "Saturday is going to be a very big challenge for our football team.
"But we're excited to play," Ferda added. "I know that the kids are going to respond to what happened to us as a team and they will get up for this football game."
Said Purcell: "This is a great rivalry game and it has become a great tradition for both of the schools and the communities. Whitefish still has a very good football team and we know we are going to be in for a battle."
One thing the Ponies will have to contend with this weekend is trying to fight the turnover bug that has plagued them early in the season. The Ponies have nine turnovers in two games and will face a very strong Bulldog defensive unit.
Purcell said that holding on to the football will be paramount if the Ponies are to extend their winning streak to three games.
"We have to cut down on our turnovers because they usually decide football games," Purcell said. "So far the turnovers haven't hurt us as much as they could have, but we have stressed the importance of execution. We need to win that battle from here on out.
"This will be a very tough football game," Purcell added. "We need to be focused, because Whitefish is a great team and they are very well coached. We need to be prepared for a tough football game, and it should be a lot of fun."
Despite all of the adversity, including having to face the top-ranked Ponies in their first game without their two best players, Ferda is keeping it all in perspective.
"This has been an up-and-down week for our kids," Ferda said. "There are definitely some question marks about our football team right now. But we have time to get over this and move on, because it is early in the season and we have a couple of games to make adjustments before we get into our conference schedule.
"The biggest challenge is keeping the kids up and focused on becoming a better football team," he added. "It will be a process but we will get through this and we are excited about playing Havre on Saturday."
The tilt for the BNSF Trophy between Havre and Whitefish is scheduled to kick off at 2 p.m. at Whitefish Stadium. The game can be heard locally on 610 KOJM-AM.