By George Ferguson/Havre Daily News Sportsemail@example.com
The large homecoming crowd at Blue Pony Stadium Friday night might have been in shock when the No. 1-ranked Havre Blue Ponies didn't score on the opening play of the game. It took a total of six plays instead.
Before long, it was business as usual, as the Ponies rolled to a 41-0 shutout over the Belgrade Panthers, behind a scintillating performance from senior quarterback Gary Wagner and another dominant showing by the HHS defense.
Wagner, who has been nearly perfect for four games now, threw for a school record 338 yards on just 13 completions. He broke the old school mark for passing yards in a game that was set in 1998 when Matt Kegel threw for 327 yards against Livingston.
Wagner also threw for three touchdowns on the night.
The Havre defense continued its usual dominance, allowing Belgrade to hardly sniff the end zone.
"Our defense is playing really well right now and they played another great game on Friday night," said Havre High head coach Troy Purcell, who is now 14-0 in homecoming games during his coaching career. "Gary also had a huge night. He was throwing the ball really well and the guys were catching it.
"The offensive line also did an outstanding job, because Belgrade never got any real pressure on Gary and he had a lot of time back there."
While Havre didn't strike on its first play or even its first possession of the game, it didn't take long for Wagner to exploit the Belgrade defense.
On the Ponies' second possession of the contest, Wagner threw a deep ball to wideout Marc Mariani, who laid out across the goal line for a fantastic catch to give the Ponies an early 6-0 lead.
Havre got the ball again with less than a minute remaining in the first quarter. On the first play of the second period, Wagner struck again, this time hitting Coda Tchida for a 31-yard scoring strike that upped the Ponies' lead to 14-0.
The duo would hook up again with 1:20 remaining in the half, this time from 35 yards out as Havre grabbed a 21-0 lead at halftime.
"We were a little surprised that Belgrade played a man defense against us," Purcell said. "They have some good athletes out there, but our offensive line was giving Gary a lot of time and our receivers were doing a good job of getting open."
Belgrade got the ball to start the second half, but its offense could do nothing against the stingy Havre defense.
With 9:39 remaining in the third period, the Ponies started turning the game into a blowout. Colby Mader busted through the line for a 28-yard run before being brought down at the 1-yard line. He was then rewarded for his efforts by scoring on the next play from 1 yard out.
Tchida put the final nail in the coffin two minutes later when he returned a punt 65 yards for a touchdown. Tchida's run electrified the large homecoming crowd and ended any hopes of a Belgrade miracle.
Havre's final score came at the 7:00 mark in the fourth quarter, when Scott Robinson scored on a 2-yard touchdown run to make it 41-0.
Aside from Wagner's record breaking night, Tchida and Mariani also put up huge numbers. Tchida caught three passes for 123 yards and two TDs to go along with his punt return. Mariani caught four balls for 134 yards and a score and had another solid defensive outing. Colby Mader also had a breakout game running the ball. Mader picked up 50 yards on seven carries and a touchdown.
Despite his outstanding performance on the night, Tchida gave credit to his teammates.
"The line had their best game of the season," Tchida said. "They gave Wagner as much time as he wanted, and he was able to just stand back there and pick them apart.
"This was a really big win for us, because it was the one game we had been waiting for all season," Tchida added. "We were really fired up to play this game. Once we stepped on the field the whole team was ready to play."
Defensively, Havre has not allowed an offensive touchdown since Sept. 11 when Whitefish scored in the fourth quarter of a 42-7 blowout.
On Friday night, the Panthers managed a mere 158 yards of offense and their longest gain from scrimmage was 24 yards. Senior defensive back Ted Wells led the Ponies with 11 tackles, including 10 solos. Bill Zuelke also had a big game with 11 tackles, eight of them solo.
"Both of those guys played great on the defensive end of the ball," Purcell said of Wells and Zuelke. "Our defense has just been playing tough football and they are a big part of why we are doing so well right now."
The only downside to an otherwise great night for the Ponies was the injury to defensive end Jared Weigel. Weigel had a scary moment in the fourth quarter when he suffered a hit at the end of a play.
He eventually had to be stabilized and taken to the hospital after he complained of losses of sensation in his toes. Weigel was later released from the hospital and is questionable for this week's game.
The win over the Panthers means Havre took a giant step toward capturing the Central A championship. The Ponies (6-0) have three games left in the regular season and will travel to Lewistown on Friday night.
Belgrade 0 0 0 0 - 0
Havre 6 15 14 6 - 41
Havre - Marc Mariani 51 pass from Gary Wagner (kick failed)
Havre - Coda Tchida 31 pass from Wagner (Craig Kallenberger pass from Wagner)
Havre - Tchida 33 pass from Wagner (Wagner kick)
Havre - Colby Mader 1 run (Wagner kick)
Havre - Tchida 50 punt return (Wagner kick)
Havre - Scott Robinson 1 run (kick failed)
Rushing - Colby Mader 7-50, Scott Robinson 2-5, Gary Wagner 2-11, Jared Weigel 1-0, Marc Mariani 1-1, Mark Larson 2-5.
Passing - Gary Wagner 13-15-0-338.
receiving - Coda Tchida 3-123, Marc Mariani 4-134, Scott Robinson 4-75, Craig Kallenberger 1-6.