by George Ferguson
Thirteen seconds. That is all the time it took for the estimated 1,900 fans at Blue Pony Stadium on Saturday to realize that the No. 1- ranked Havre High School football team was not going to be denied a chance to host the 2004 Class A state championship football game.
Senior wide receiver/cornerback Coda Tchida took the opening kickoff 85 yards for a touchdown, sparking Havre to a 55-14 drubbing of the Libby Loggers in Class A semifinal playoff action. With the victory over the Loggers, the Ponies (11-0) will now host Billings Central on Saturday for the 2004 Class A state championship.
After Tchida's electrifying start to the game, it looked as though Libby would regroup. The Loggers marched almost 60 yards on 14 plays and chewed up over 10 minutes of time in the first quarter. But the highly underrated Havre defense took care of Libby's drive by standing firm on four straight plays from the 15-yard line and forcing the ball back to the Havre offense.
Senior wideout/defensive back Marc Mariani credited that defensive stand as an early statement what would lead to another lopsided affair.
"That defensive stand we made was a huge key to this game," Mariani said. "Scoring on the opening kickoff gave us a lot of momentum, but then Libby really took it back and started to run the ball right at us.
"When we stopped them on fourth down, I really think it broke their backs," he added. "It was still early in the game, but that gave us all the momentum we needed."
Indeed, the fact that the Loggers ate up nearly the entire first quarter on one possession did little to deter the Havre offense from rolling up points in a hurry. On Havre's first official possession of the contest, it would take just two plays to find paydirt for the second time. After fullback Colby Mader ripped off a 20-yard run, quarterback Gary Wagner started his school record-setting day by hitting Tchida for a a 60-yard touchdown strike that upped the Ponies' lead to 14-0 with 4:25 to play in the first quarter.
"Our defense really got things started in the first quarter when we turned Libby away on fourth down," said HHS head coach Troy Purcell. "If Libby had scored on their first drive they would have grabbed a lot of momentum. But our defense has played well all season and they played very well again on Saturday."
After a three and out by the Libby offense, the Ponies got on the board again when Wagner finished off a quick drive with a 1-yard TD plunge that made it 21-0. Wagner's only rushing touchdown of the day was set up by a 37-yard screen pass to Scott Robinson on a key third down and 12 at midfield.
"The kickoff return and a sack that Ricky Houim made on Libby's first drive were both huge for us," Tchida said. "Libby came into this game with a lot of confidence, but when we made plays like that early in the game, it gave us a lot more confidence. Big plays really get us rolling."
The Ponies' offense picked up right where it left off in the second quarter, as Tchida hauled in his second TD of the game, this time from 60 yards out, to make it 28-0.
The Loggers did answer this time. They put a five-minute drive together that resulted in a 5-yard touchdown run by sophomore quarterback Kyle Baker.
Havre's quick strike offense didn't take long to respond. A minute later Wagner found tight end Craig Kallenberger wide open for a 28-yard touchdown at the 5:11 mark of the first half. Two minutes later, Mariani got into the act. He took a screen pass from Wagner 75 yards to the house to up the Ponies lead to 42-7.
Mariani showed off the skills that have made him a college-level football recruit on the screen play by making several quick moves and shedding several would-be tacklers on his way to the end zone.
With a big lead, the vaunted Pony defense took control of the game once again. Libby had managed to put together another solid drive into Havre territory. But Tchida, who scored four different ways on Saturday, picked Baker off and went into the end zone untouched, to give the Ponies an insurmountable 48-7 lead.
"We played a very good all-around football game on Saturday," Purcell said. "Our offense was really sharp and our defense was as good as it has been all season.
"Libby was pretty effective running the ball and they did get some good yards against us," he added. "But our defense made some big plays when we needed them."
Said Mariani: "I think we were clicking on all cylinders against Libby. We were good in every phase of the game and we didn't make any mistakes. Sometimes our defense gets overlooked because of how good we are on offense, but I think we are a great defensive team and we take it personally when team's score on us."
Not many teams have scored very often on the Ponies this season. Despite rolling up 300 yards of total offense and dominating the time of possession, the Loggers managed to reach the end zone just twice, the second of which came after the outcome was no longer in doubt. Baker hit George Mercer for a 48-yard score in the third quarter. But as the Ponies have done all season, they answered. Wagner hit Mariani for a 5-yard TD that made the final score 55-14.
Wagner's day included a school record 341 yards passing on just nine completions. He broke his own mark of 336, which he set earlier this season. He accounted for five touchdowns through the air as well as running for another.
"Gary had another outstanding day throwing the football," Purcell said. "It is pretty special when you can set a school record during a playoff game, but that is just the kind of player he is."
Wagner's two favorite targets also had monstrous outings. Mariani caught four balls for 131 yards and two scores. He also led the Ponies on defense with 15 tackles, including 10 solo tackles and an interception. Tchida's day included his scintillating 85-yard kickoff return, two TD catches and a interception return for a touchdown. Senior running back Scott Robinson also accounted for 98 yards of offense. He carried the ball five times for 35 yards and also caught two passes for 63 more yards. In all, the Ponies racked up 400 yards of total offense in their biggest game of the season.
"Coach Purcell said that he didn't think we could play any better than we did against Stevensville," Tchida said. "But with how we played against Libby, I think we did.
"It is amazing that at this point in the playoffs we are playing at this high of a level," he added. "We knew that Libby was a good team and they were coming in here with a lot of confidence. But we know what we can do. We were focused and intense from the opening kickoff all the way to the end of the game."
With the win over the Loggers, the Ponies will now prepare to host Billings Central for the Class A state championship. The game marks the second time in three years that Blue Pony Stadium will host a state title game. It is also a rematch of Havre's closest affair to date. The Ponies had to hold off a late Ram rally in a 20-19 win back in September.
While Purcell is looking forward to another shot at a state championship, he is also savoring the moment of Saturday's big win.
"It was a great day for Havre High football," Purcell said. "Our kids were intense and focused, and they played great football against a quality opponent. It was certainly a lot of fun to watch."