By George Ferguson/Havre Daily News Sportsfirstname.lastname@example.org
The Havre Blue Ponies hadn't been in an adverse situation all season long - that is until a perfect season and, more importantly, the first state football championship in 34 years were hanging in the balance with four minutes left to play.
Facing a first down at the 4:16 mark of the fourth quarter, Marc Mariani broke a 21-21 tie by taking a Gary Wagner pass 84 yards for what would be the game-winning touchdown in a 34-21 win over Billings Central in the 2004 Class A state championship football game in front of a record crowd at Blue Pony Stadium in Havre.
"(Bryce) Burton was playing up on me all game," Mariani said. "I knew I could beat him one-on-one. I got a couple steps on him and Gary put it right on the money."
Mariani's game-winning gallop to the end zone was one of several big plays he made during a contest in which he was knocked out on a hit early in the first quarter. Albeit a bit woozy at first, he managed to come back to catch two TDs and made several other key grabs and even more big plays on defense to give Havre High a perfect 12-0 season and its first state football championship since 1970.
"We were in a real fight at the end of the game," Wagner said. "But they gave us four minutes to score and Marc Mariani stepped up and made a really big play.
"What can you say about the game he had today," Wagner added. "He is an amazing athlete and an amazing football player, and he brought it home for us today."
"Marc Mariani is definitely the MVP of this game," said an elated Havre High head coach Troy Purcell, who now has his first state championship after 14 years of coaching. "He stepped up and did an unbelievable job today. He has had a great season, a great career and he had a huge game today."
Mariani's game-winning touchdown was set up by a set of strange circumstances. After Billings Central had backed the Ponies up to their own 1-yard line on fourth down with five minutes left in the game, HHS punter Scott Robinson was hit during a punt attempt that would have given the Rams excellent field position. Instead, the penalty gave the Ponies fresh life and a first-and-10 on their own 16-yard line. On the next play, Wagner and Mariani made the play that would deliver the Ponies the title.
"That play was huge," said Billings Central head coach Jim Stanton of the roughing the kicker penalty. "We would have had the ball on their 35-yard line and we would have been in really good shape. It certainly changed the game."
Indeed, the Rams had gotten into position to steal the state title away from the Ponies by completely dominating the third quarter. Trailing 21-7 at intermission, Billings Central took the second half kickoff and methodically marched 57 yards in five minutes, capping the drive off with a 2-yard Kyle Bushman touchdown run to get to within 21-14.
After Havre's vaunted offense failed to respond, the Rams got the ball back and went on a 14-play five-minute drive that resulted in a game-tying 3-yard TD run by wingback Mike Hodges.
In all, the Rams had the ball for 10 of the 12 minutes in the period and scored twice, leaving Purcell very concerned heading into the fourth quarter.
"You have to give a lot of credit to Billings Central and their coaching staff," Purcell said. "They had a great game plan for us, and they really ran the ball well against our defense all day.
"But our kids rose to the occasion on a couple of key defensive plays in the second half," he added. "And our offense made some big plays when we needed them most. I am just really proud of every one of our players for hanging in there and playing hard and getting the job done."
Said Wagner: "Billings Central played a great game against us today. But our defense stepped up really big at the end of the game, and there was no way we were going to let this game get away from us. It was a tough, hard-fought football game, and our guys stepped up huge in some really big situations."
Even though most of the regular season looked like a breeze for the Ponies, their first state championship in 34 years was anything but. After Wagner was picked off on Havre's first possession of the game, the Rams took the ball straight down the field without throwing a pass and scored the game's first touchdown when Bushman plunged into the end zone from the 1-yard line. The Rams' 7-0 lead was the first time Havre had trailed in a football game since the season opener against Glendive.
But as good as the Rams were on Saturday, they could not slow Mariani and Wagner down. The Ponies capitalized on Coda Tchida's 50-yard kickoff return by driving the ball down to the 1-yard line where Wagner would punch the ball in to tie the game at 7-7. The Ponies' first TD was set up by a spectacular diving catch by, who else, Mariani.
On the first play of the second quarter, with a seemingly hopeless third-and- 36 situation, Wagner hit Scott Robinson on a slant over the middle and Robinson turned that pass into a 62-yard jaunt that upped the Ponies' lead to 14-7.
After the two teams traded possessions, the HHS defense rose up and got the Ponies the ball back with less than a minute to play in the half. After a couple of broken plays, Mariani put his stamp on the game again when Wagner threw a wobbly pass while being chased out of the pocket. Mariani grabbed it and broke several tackles on his way to a 75-yard touchdown that gave the Ponies a comfortable 21-7 lead at halftime.
Mariani caught seven balls for an astounding 220 yards and two scores. On a day that he led his team to a state title, Mariani also broke the single-season school record for receiving yards.
"It is an unbelievable day and it has been an unbelievable season," Mariani said. "This was a great game to play in, and it is a great feeling to finally accomplish what this whole team has been working so hard for all these years."
Despite facing the most pressure he has seen all season, Wagner was also outstanding in the final game of his storied two-year career. He completed 14 passes for 308 yards and three touchdowns. It was his third straight 300-yard passing game. He also scored twice on quarterback keepers and finished his career at Havre High with a 23-2 record as a starter.
Purcell gave Wagner and his teammates all the credit for the season they have had.
"Gary has had a tremendous season and so has everyone around him," Purcell said. "The offensive line was under some duress today against a very physical team in Billings Central, but we still managed to make some very big plays when we needed them the most.
"We haven't been a team who will win the time of possession or a team who gets the most first downs," Purcell added. "But we make the big play when it counts, and today we made a couple more than Billings Central did."
Wagner gave equal praise to his coach.
Said Wagner: "This is something we wanted for Coach Purcell. We have been around him for a long time and we always told him we would get him a state championship. Today the whole team stepped up and got that done, and I am just so happy for him."
The Ponies also got a workmanlike day from senior tailback Scott Robinson. He carried the ball 12 times for 81 yards and caught three balls for another 74 yards to go along with his touchdown in the second quarter.
Of course, the win over Billings Central would not have happened if not for some great defensive plays by the Ponies.
Despite surrendering 117 yards rushing to Bushman on 26 carries, the Ponies' defensive line bottled up all-conference quarterback Bryce Burton, who gained 40 yards on 11 carries but rarely broke the line of scrimmage. Tyler Wheeler, Rick Houim and Bryden Vukasin hounded Burton in the backfield all day, while linebacker Colby Mader was seemingly everywhere. Wheeler finished the day with a sack and interception. Mariani and Ted Wells also made several key defensive plays in the secondary and, fittingly, it was Mariani who ended the game by intercepting Burton on the Rams' final play from scrimmage.
"This was a total team effort today," Purcell said. "Everyone played their hearts out in order to win a state championship and I am just so happy for all of these kids, our coaching staff and our school, as well as the community of Havre.
"This is a great feeling and it was a great game to be a part of," he added. "I am just very happy right now to be able to win a state championship at Havre High."
Billings Central 7 0 14 0 - 21
Havre 7 14 0 14 - 34
Billings Central - Kyle Bushman 2 run (Nolan Lopez kick)
Havre - Gary Wagner 1 run (Wagner kick)
Havre - Scott Robinson 62 pass from Wagner (Wagner kick)
Havre - Marc Mariani 75 pass from Wagner (Wagner kick)
Billings Central - Bushman 2 run (Lopez kick)
Billings Central - Mike Hodges 3 run (Lopez kick)
Havre - Mariani 84 pass from Wagner (Wagner kick)
Havre - Wagner 1 run (kick failed)
Rushing - Billings Central: Kyle Bushman 26-117, Mac Dye 9-20, Bryce Burton 11-40, Mike Hodges 6-24. Havre: Scott Robinson 12-81, Colby Mader 3-16, Jared Weigel 4-7, Gary Wagner 11- -9.
Passing - Billings Central: Bryce Burton 1-9-32-2. Havre: Gary Wagner 14-21-308-1.
Receiving - Billings Central: Mac Dye 1-32. Havre: Marc Mariani 7-220, Scott Robinson 3-74, Coda Tchida 3-20, Rick Houim 1-6.