By George Ferguson/Havre Daily News Sports/ firstname.lastname@example.org
On the south bleachers of Blue Pony Stadium there is a sign that reads: "Welcome to the Blue Pony Corral."
When the No. 1 ranked Havre High Blue Ponies and visiting Belgrade Panthers take the field tonight for Havre High's homecoming, the sign might as well read: "Welcome to the O.K. Corral."
Make no mistake, this showdown has been a year in the making.
In 2003, Havre went into Belgrade undefeated and ranked No. 1 in Class A football. But the Panthers upended the Ponies, and with that win, dashed any hopes of Havre repeating as Central A champions.
Both teams went on to reach the semifinals of the Class A playoffs before losing road games at Miles City and Dillon, respectively. Belgrade and Miles City were Havre's only blemishes on its 2004 season. This year's senior-laden HHS team has been waiting for tonight's rematch with the Panthers for what seems like an eternity.
"It has been all of we have talked about all week," said HHS senior quarterback Gary Wagner. "Losing in Belgrade last year took any chance of a conference championship away from us and we took it really hard. The crowd chanted that we were overrated and those things have really motivated us this week. We're ready to go out and play intense, fired up football."
Havre head coach Troy Purcell is undefeated in homecoming games in his tenure at Havre High. He also agrees that last year's loss in Belgrade has served as strong motivation for his troops this week. But as many veteran coaches do, Purcell looks at this game like any other.
"We showed the kids the film of last year's game and most of the kids that played in that game are back," Purcell said. "So it has definitely served as extra incentive to play well this week.
"But this is a big game for us because every conference game is," he added. "Last week's game against Livingston was just as big, because one loss can mean no conference championship and no home field advantage in the playoffs. In our conference, every game is big, no matter who you're playing."
While Havre and Belgrade's seasons ended in the same round of the playoffs last year, the two teams have gone in opposite directions this season.
The Ponies returned most of their personnel from last year and are off to a dominating 5-0 start. Belgrade lost 19 starts to graduation and seven all-staters including all-state two-way star Jake Kallestad and quarterback Caleb Salisbury. The Panthers roll into Havre tonight with a less than stellar 2-3 record. However, they are 1-0 in conference play, and according to Purcell, numbers don't always tell the whole story.
"We know that Belgrade is still a very good, athletic football team," Purcell said. "They have probably played the most difficult non-conference schedule in the state this season, so they are a tested and experienced football team.
"We also know that this is a a rivalry game and it is our homecoming game," Purcell added. "They will come here well coached and fired up to play us."
Despite all of the Panthers losses to graduation, they are still a very dangerous option football team. They platoon a pair of junior quarterbacks in Colton Knatterud and Derek Erickson. The pair also turns into dangerous wide receivers when the other is calling signals.
Kallestad may have been the most difficult player to replace, but Belgrade head coach Mike Hollowell may have that replacement in junior fullback-linebacker Zach Holgren (6-2, 205). Holgren was an all-conference performer last year as a sophomore at linebacker and he is one of the Panthers leading rushers in 2004.
"Belgrade is still a very good team offensively and they are playing good football," Purcell said. "They have a lot of quickness and some strength at running back. Both of their quarterbacks can run and throw effectively so our defense will have to be really sharp."
There is no doubt that the Ponies defense will be up to the task. Havre has not allowed an offensive touchdown in 12 quarters or nearly three full games. Livingston's only points last week came on a 70-yard kick-off return by Mike Benvenga.
The Ponies also get a boost with the return of starting senior linebacker Brett Michels, who has missed the last two outings with a concussion. A fired up Havre High defense means emotions will be running high tonight. Senior captain Wagner understands how important tonight's game is, and is trying to keep his teammates' emotions in check.
"The coaches talked to us about about not losing our heads," Wagner said. "We understand that this game is huge and that one mistake, one penalty, could cost us a chance at a conference championship.
"We are going to be fired up because we want to beat Belgrade and because it is homecoming," Wagner added. "But we are going to be focused and we want to win with class on the field."
With both teams ready to do battle in an emotionally charged football game, Purcell sees execution as the main key to victory and taking the next step towards claiming the conference title.
"The stakes are very high in this game, like they are every week," Purcell said. "We have been playing good football so far this season. If we execute our offense, and we don't miss an assignment on defense, I think that good things will happen for us."
Kickoff for tonight's homecoming game between Havre and Belgrade is slated for 7 at Blue Pony Stadium. The game can be heard locally on 610 KOJM-