By George Ferguson/Havre Daily News Sportsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Somebody forgot to tell the Libby Loggers football team that its season was supposed to end last Saturday in Sidney.
Down 28-14 in the fourth quarter of last Saturday's quarterfinal game at No. 3 ranked and undefeated Sidney, the Loggers stormed back to stun the Eagles 35-34 in overtime to shake up the 2004 Class A playoffs.
Meanwhile, the No. 1-ranked Havre Blue Ponies took care of business on Saturday by routing an overmatched Stevensville team 42-7, setting up Saturday's semifinal clash between the Ponies and upstart Loggers at noon at Blue Pony Stadium.
Libby comes into perhaps its biggest game in years with a 7-3 overall record. Even though many fans might be surprised to see the Loggers still playing at this point in the season, head coach Neil Fuller knew his team could get here.
"Our kids have done exactly what we have wanted them to all season, which is get better each week," Fuller said. "Sidney was a great team, and it looked like we were dead late in the game. But we have very tough, scrappy kids and they fought back and got it done."
Still, Fuller knows that his team faces an even bigger challenge than the one they overcame last Saturday.
"Now we face another great football team in Havre," he said. "It will be a huge challenge to go on the road again, but we have a lot of confidence right now. It is a game that our kids are looking forward to."
After a week of rest and a shaky start against Stevensville, the top-ranked and undefeated Ponies got their juggernaut back on track by scoring 28 points in the second quarter en route to the easy win. HHS head coach Troy Purcell liked most of what he saw from his team in that first playoff game, but he also believes that there are some things that need to be fixed before facing the Loggers.
"We sputtered a little offensively at the beginning of the game, but our defense stepped up and made some big plays early," Purcell said of the Stevensville game. "Overall, I thought we played pretty well. We are definitely going to have to clean up the penalties and some minor mistakes this week, because we have a very tough game ahead of us with Libby this weekend."
Indeed, the Ponies and Loggers have been here before, just on opposite ends of the state. In 2003, Havre went to Libby in the quarterfinal round and ransacked the undefeated Loggers 42-7. It is a game that neither team has forgotten about, but it is one that has served as motivation for Libby all season.
"The Havre game last year has been in the back of our minds all season and even after last season ended," Fuller said. "Havre played in that game like they belonged there, and after the first quarter, we didn't. We lost confidence in that game and it was a great learning experience for us."
Purcell is looking at the game from a different angle, one of comfort.
"It certainly helps in our preparation that most of our kids have seen Libby before," Purcell said. "But you really can't compare the two teams. Libby is a year older and they are tremendously athletic. I think this season they are a lot more dynamic offensively, so we know we are going to have our hands full with them this time around."
Despite the fact that the Loggers have three blemishes on their record this season, don't be misled into thinking they are a mediocre football team. Aside from its win over Sidney, Libby also handed Frenchtown its only loss this season. The Loggers also stepped up to play a Class AA opponent in Great Falls High and subsequently lost.
Libby's other two losses were both one-point affairs against Stevensville and Northwest A champion Polson. In those two losses, the Loggers turned the ball over six times in each contest and still only lost by one point each time. Fuller needs to look no further than those two games to characterize his team's chances against the vaunted Ponies.
"We have had some great wins this season and we have had some very tough losses," Fuller said. "Turnovers have been a problem for us in every game, including last week at Sidney. In this game, we cannot afford to turn the ball over at all, because Havre will make us pay for those mistakes with the great offense that they have.
"All year we have tried to instill in our kids that we are a pretty good football team," Fuller added. "If we can limit our turnovers, we believe that we can play with anybody."
Indeed, turnovers are always a big part of any outcome, particularly playoff games. Havre got six of them against Stevensville, and quarterback Gary Wagner made the Yellowjackets pay by racking up 312 yards passing and scoring five total touchdowns.
With two very athletic teams both offensively and defensively, the outcome could be decided by the players on the field and not by mistakes.
The Loggers roster is deep in talent led by two-way all-state senior Blaine Baker (6-4, 225). Baker stars at running back this season for Libby and also catches passes from steadily improving sophomore quarterback and younger brother, Kyle Baker (6-5, 205). Baker also has a pair of tall targets to throw to in 6-1 Jake Peske and 6-4 George Mercer. Senior Linebacker Ryan Rios (5-11, 220) anchors a stout Libby defense.
"We certainly haven't seen a team that is this tall all season," Purcell said. "But we know that Libby runs the ball very hard, and they also run play-action pass very effectively. They are a very good offensive team. Our defense will have its hands full.
"I really think this game is going to be decided in the trenches. Whoever controls the line of scrimmage is going to have a big advantage."
Although the Loggers are an option-based offensive team, they did attempt 50 passes against the Eagles in their overtime win last Saturday. Fuller attributed that to a dominating Sidney defense and agreed with Purcell about the game being won in the trenches.
"Obviously, we would like to be more balanced than that on offense," Fuller said. "But we faced a very physical defense last week, and we know that Havre is just as physical. We will do whatever it takes to win. If we can be balanced that would be great, but if we have to throw the ball, we'll do that and see what happens."
Meanwhile, the Ponies will change nothing on offense as they prepare for their third straight semifinal playoff appearance under Purcell.
They are Class A's most prolific team offensively and it showed again last Saturday. Havre puts up nearly 46 points per game while its defense allows just six points per outing. The Ponies did commit 15 penalties against Stevi, and Purcell admitted that in the semifinals that cannot happen again.
"In the playoffs, you absolutely can't afford to make mistakes like that," Purcell said. "We have addressed that in practice this week and hopefully we will be better in that area.
"We are playing good football, and we are very fired up for this game," Purcell added. "These kids are smart and focused and they know what it takes to get it done."
Said Fuller: "We know that Havre is a great team and they have had a remarkable season. They are well coached. They have a great quarterback in Gary Wagner and great skill players on both sides of the ball. This is a tremendous challenge for our football team and we're excited about the opportunity. We are going to to do whatever it takes to go out there and try and get another big win."
Saturday's Class A semifinal between Havre and Libby will kick off at noon at Blue Pony Stadium. The winner will face the winner of the Billings Central/Frenchtown semifinal next Saturday in the Class A state championship. The game can be heard in Havre on 610 KOJM-AM.