by George Ferguson
When the Billings Central High School football team steps onto the field at Blue Pony Stadium on Saturday for the Class A state championship game with the Havre Blue Ponies, the Rams will know exactly what they are up against.
It may seem like a long time, but it was just a little over two months ago that the Rams were on that same field locked in an early season tussle with the top-ranked Ponies.
The Rams ended up losing that contest 20-19 and and took an entirely different route than the Blue Ponies to get to where they are on Saturday. However, according to Billings Central head coach Jim Stanton, that game back on Sept. 2 was a springboard game, not only for the Blue Ponies, but for his Rams as well.
The Rams rebounded from their loss at Havre by defeating Miles City in their Eastern A conference opener, 30-20. The next week they suffered a difficult loss to at the hands of eventual conference champion Sidney, 26-19. The loss in Sidney left the Rams at 2-2 on the season and a nervous 1-1 in conference play.
It wasn't exactly the start that people expected from a team that was picked in the preseason to contend for not only a conference championship, but a state title as well.
But in retrospect, the first four games of the season would serve as a catalyst for what would turn out to be a dream season for the small catholic school in the state's biggest city.
"Our schedule was very difficult early in the season," Stanton said. "But I think, looking back, we learned a lot from those games about the kind of team we had. It was great preparation for what we have had to go through the last few weeks."
Indeed, the Rams would go on to win two out of their next three games. But they did suffer a setback when they dropped a 21-17 decision to Glendive on Oct. 15. That left the Rams needing to win their last game of the regular season in order to ensure a playoff berth. In the end, they drubbed Colstrip 40-6 and ended up finishing second in the final regular season Eastern A Conference standings at 4-2 and 5-3 overall.
With a tough regular season behind them and a home playoff game against Belgrade looming, Stanton pointed to the game with Havre as the game that got his team to where they are now.
"I think we went away from that game feeling very good about ourselves as a football team," Stanton said. "It was a tough loss but I think the kids felt that they had gained a lot of confidence and the better Havre got as the season went along, the more we realized how good of a team we had."
To say the Rams have been good the last three weeks would be selling them way too short.
Billings Central opened the playoffs with a bang, defeating Belgrade 35-14 at home. Next they traveled to then second-ranked Polson and left with a 13-7 win and a spot in the semifinals.
But their biggest performance was yet to come.
Last weekend at a near-capacity Daylis Stadium in Billings, the Rams rode the momentum of a fumble return for a touchdown on the first play of the game to hold off a very good Frenchtown team 33-24. With the win, they earned a return trip to Havre for the biggest game in school history.
"I think those last two wins against Frenchtown and Polson are both examples of our early season schedule really paying off," Stanton said. "We were forced to come up with some big plays in those games and we had to be very good in the fourth quarter.
"All of those tough games early in the season had the kids prepared for those situations and gave them the confidence to know that they could get the job done when the game was on the line."
It may be cliche, but Stanton just wanted to see his team and players improve with each game, regardless of a win or a loss.
"It was one of those situations where you can see that the kids have gotten better every week," he said. "They have worked hard to get here and that effort and determination is paying off now."
The Rams are now one game away from doing something that a Billings Central football team hasn't done since 1968 - win a state championship. Interestingly enough, Central defeated Havre on the road 25-14 to win their last title.
Even though no Billings Central player has been this far in the season before, their head coach has and it as an experience he looks back on with fondness. Stanton led Huntley Project to the 1998 Class B state title and coached several other Red Devil team's that finished second. It's that type of big game experience that Stanton draw from and relay to his team for this week's game.
"My past experience certainly helps in that I can tell the kids how much they should appreciate this opportunity and savor it," Stanton said. "The kids should be very proud that they have gotten this far. They need to know how fortunate we are as a football team.
"It has also helped with the preparation this week," he added. "It is nice to kind of know what to expect and what we need to do in order to be prepared for this game."
Still, Stanton's Rams aren't just satisfied with being here. Despite all of the success he had at Huntley-Project and all the success that his team has had this season, it is important to know just where this team and more importantly the program have come.
In Stanton's first season at Billings Central, the Rams won just two games. Rebuilding was a painstaking task, which included a complete revamping of the offense and defense, while trying to turn the program into a winner. But the task would only took one season. Last year the Rams went 7-3, losing in the quarterfinals of the playoffs to eventual state champion Dillon.
With the entire team returning in 2004, the Rams were saddled with high hopes and every higher expectations. Stanton believes his team has embraced the situations.
"The kids have played with a lot of pressure this season," he said. "There were a lot of expectations put on us this season. We didn't win every game, but every time we lost we bounced back . That is a credit to the great kids and the great coaching staff we have here."
Which brings us back to Sept. 3. Billings Central walked out of Blue Pony Stadium with a 1-1 record and unsure of who it was as a team.
While the Blue Ponies went on to steamroll through the regular season and the playoffs, winning by an average margin of better than 40 points per game, the Rams had to find their way for several weeks. Yet here they are, two months later, back at Blue Pony Stadium; back to the place where their dream season truly began. Stanton and his team couldn't be happier to back.
"This has been a great season and it has been a lot of fun to watch the progression of this team," he said. "I think that from where we were two years ago to now, it is just amazing. I have to give these kids a lot of credit for believing in what we were trying to build the last three years. They stuck with it and they never gave up on the dream of getting to this point.
"We learned a lot about ourselves when we played Havre the first time," he added. "What happened in that game really has worked to our advantage and it is a big reason why we have been able to get to where we are right now."