By George Ferguson/Havre Daily News Sportsfirstname.lastname@example.org
To steal a line from Hank Williams Jr., which he screams every Monday night, "Are you ready for some football?"
Havre fans may have forgotten what real football is since the No. 1-ranked Havre High Blue Ponies have had a week off, as well as a home schedule that included four blowout wins this season.
Well, all that will change on Saturday at noon as the 2004 Class A playoffs come to Blue Pony Stadium, and with it a very dangerous Stevensville Yellowjacket team.
The Yellowjackets come to Havre fresh off of a 42-6 thrashing of Columbia Falls at home in the opening round of the playoffs last Friday night. Stevi is 8-2 this season and finished second in the Southwest A Conference regular season standings.
Meanwhile, the Ponies finished the regular season 9-0 and went wire-to-wire as Class A's No. 1-ranked team, easily capturing the Central A title under head coach Troy Purcell. But Purcell knows that all of that means nothing come kick-off on Saturday.
"We have had some games this season that were over at halftime," Purcell said. "But I think the kids are ready to play four quarters of football. They understand what is at stake in the playoffs and these kids live for a challenge like this.
"Their focus this week in practice has been very impressive and right now they are a determined group," Purcell added. "I think that comes from having such strong senior leadership on this team."
It is no secret that the Ponies have not been challenged since game two of the regular season, which was a 20-19 win over Billings Central in Havre.
Havre's offense has averaged nearly 46 points per game and its defense has yielded a scant six points per contest. Both of those numbers are tops in Class A football this season. So obviously questions abound surrounding the Ponies' playoff opener with the Yellowjackets.
Given the numbers in front of him, Stevensville head coach Bob Connors obviously has some concerns coming into Saturday's contest. But at the same time he knows he has a very good football team of his own, one that is riding high after a great regular season and a win in the opening round of the playoffs.
"We thought at the beginning of the season that we would have a chance to get third in our league," Connors said. "But we have had a very good season and we have been able to bounce back each time we have lost. I think our kids are playing with a lot of confidence right now.
"Coaching in Laurel for 13 years, I know how solid the Havre program is right now," he added. "They are a tremendously athletic team with speed and talent. They are such a well-rounded ball club."
Indeed, the Yellowjackets have plenty of reasons to be concerned about the vaunted Blue Ponies. Still, they have plenty of reasons to be confident in themselves as well. Stevensville has one of the top rushing offenses in Class A this season, featuring one of the most prolific running backs in the state in 5-9 senior Travis Browne.
Browne has flourished this season in Connors' option-based offense. But he has a lot of help in the backfield with fullback Zach Renstrom as well as a big offensive line led by seniors Tyler LeClaire (6-4, 240) and Kelin Johnson (6-4, 245).
"Travis Browne is certainly the focus of our defensive preparation this week," Purcell said. "He is a very good football player and a great runner. But they are a very good option team with a lot of speed and their linemen do a great job of blocking and pulling, so our defense will have their hands full this week."
Of course Havre has made a living on its defensive play this season and Connors is well aware of that. He thinks the Ponies' defense could be the key to Saturday's outcome.
"That is what makes Havre such a great football team," Connors said. "They force teams into turnovers and really do a great job of shutting down the running game.
"We like to hit teams with some big plays, but we are going to have to move the football with our running game," he added. "Time of possession will be critical and if we can move the ball successfully and not turn it over, I think we can be in good shape in the fourth quarter."
Of course, Havre's high-scoring offense may have something to say about the outcome as well. The Ponies have the top-rated quarterback in Class A in senior Gary Wagner as well as a pair of gifted wide receivers in Coda Tchida and Marc Mariani. Senior tailback Scott Robinson and fullback Colby Mader have also been productive out of the backfield this season. But despite all of Havre's great skill players, Connors said it is Havre's offensive line that scares him the most.
"Watching them on film, you see that they just control the line of scrimmage and they are extremely athletic," Connors said. "Havre's quarterback has also done a tremendous job this season. He is having a really great year, much like Torrey Thomas did at Dillon last season."
Capturing the Central A title this season also gave the Ponies a full week off after their regular season finale against Browning two weeks ago. While rust is always a concern after a bye week, Purcell insists that the week off did his team good and that it should be rejuvenated come Saturday afternoon.
"I think the week off was fine for us," Purcell said. "It is a long season and we are starting the third part of it. It gave the kids a chance to get away from football for a couple of days to get our legs fresh.
"We have had a great week of practice and the kids are very excited about this game," Purcell said. "We have been working toward goals all season. This group is very focused on winning this game and they are not looking ahead at all. I think they are very well-prepared. I expect our team to be very sharp in what should be a very good football game against a very good team in Stevensville."
Said Connors: "I think we feel pretty good about how we are playing right now. We have a tough draw having to come to Havre in the quarterfinals, but we are going do what we have done all season. We will stick to our game plan, and hopefully we'll have a chance to be in the game in the fourth quarter."
Saturday's Class A quarterfinal between Havre and Stevensville is slated to kick off at noon at Blue Pony Stadium. Gates will open at 10:30 a.m. The game can be heard locally on 610 KOJM-AM.