By Krystal Spring/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
Come Saturday afternoon Noel Henderson will be found in the bleachers of Blue Pony Stadium, cheering on Havre High as the Blue Ponies battle the Billings Central Rams for state championship honors.
"I rarely miss a Pony game. In fact, I really can't remember one I've missed. If you cut me, I think I'd bleed blue," Henderson said, laughing.
Henderson understands the significance of Saturday's big game. An HHS graduate himself, Henderson was a senior wide receiver in 1970 - the last time Havre High won a state championship in football.
"I sure didn't think I'd see 34 years go by before we had another championship football team. I think I can speak for everyone on our team when I say it's time we get another state championship," Henderson, or "Hendy" as he was called by his teammates, said Wednesday. "We're really pulling for the Ponies. Our hearts are with the Ponies. I sure hope this bunch of kids can get it done."
The 1970 Blue Pony football team started its season ranked 10th in the Class A standings, and with a loss and a tie in their first two nonconference games, no one expected the Ponies to morph into an Eastern Division powerhouse, but they did.
"After the first two games, coach (Tom) Molen decided he was going to split us up so we only played offense or defense. After that, we pretty much killed everybody," Havre resident Dave Springer, a senior defensive tackle on the 1970 team, said Wednesday.
The two-platoon system worked like magic for the Ponies, who held four of their next six opponents to scoreless games.
"Glasgow was a big rival for us and we beat them 53 to nothing," Springer said with a chuckle.
To earn a berth in the state championship game, the 1970 Pony team had to defeat the Billings Central Rams, the team this year's Pony squad will face on Saturday.
"Playing Billings Central was more like playing a state championship game than playing Columbia Falls," the team the Ponies beat to take home state honors, Henderson said. "(Billings Central) played really hard. They were a great team."
Henderson said the 1970 Ponies played a different kind of football than Troy Purcell's team.
"I was a wide receiver on a team that passed five times a game," Henderson said. "I don't think I've ever seen a high school team with as many offensive weapons as this group. They have a great running game and their passing game is absolutely amazing.
"We were more one-dimensional. We didn't have to pass the ball that much because we had a really good running attack. When we played, it was all about going out and playing smash-mouth football. People didn't want to play us because we hit them harder than they could hit us."
Springer, who rarely misses a Pony game, said he'll never forget playing in the state championship game in Columbia Falls, where the Ponies beat the Wildcats 34-18.
"A huge fog rolled onto the field in the second half," he said. "I couldn't even see far enough into the backfield to see who the quarterback rolled out to."
Springer's teammates also remember the experience.
"No kidding, all I could see was the tackle, the guard and (quarterback) Pat Kelly. I couldn't see anything else," Henderson said. "It really didn't affect us much. We just ran it up the gut."
The 1970 Ponies said Molen, who coached at Havre High for four years, encouraged them throughout the season to play hard for the "golden plum."
"He always talked about getting the golden plum," Doug Runnion, a defensive back with the 1970 Pony squad, said Wednesday. "I didn't even know what that was at the time. But he planted that seed in our head and we fought for the golden plum all season."
The 1970 team earned the golden plum - a small gold football each player received from the Montana High School Association after winning the state championship.
"(Molen) told us if we accomplished the goal and won the prize, the golden plum, we would never forget it for the rest of our lives, and he was right," said Darby Minnick, a 1970 senior defensive tackle.
Minnick, who now lives in Bozeman, said playing on a state championship team changed his life.
"I wasn't a high school sports hero; I was a mediocre player," he said. "The best part of my entire high school career was playing on the Blue Pony football team. I still have that gold football. I'll never forget it."
Minnick isn't alone. The old Pony players said they still treasure the golden plum they won together.
"I have it hanging in my den and everytime I look at it, I see the faces of the guys on the team. It really brings back fond memories," Henderson said. "Molen was such a great motivator. You really felt like you were walking on air before the game because he got you so fired up. You were really just anxious to get out there and hit someone."
From short-sheeting their coaches' beds in Miles City to accidentally punching Billings Central coach Dennis Erickson - now coach of the San Francisco 49ers - in the face, the 1970 Blue Ponies made memories to last a lifetime.
"The thing I remember most is the camaraderie of the team," Henderson said. "I see some of those guys now that maybe I haven't seen in 15 or 20 years, and it's just like I saw them yesterday. There was a bond established that was pretty unique."
"Our team was great players and good people," Minnick said. "The difference between being the team in contention and winning is heart. That's why we won, period."
Springer said he hopes the 2004 Blue Ponies can follow in the footsteps of the 1970 team.
"I've gone to lots of games over the years, hoping that another team could do it again, but it just hasn't worked out. I hope this is the team to do it," he said.
Though distance will keep many 1970 players from attending Saturday's game, the support is still there.
"I really hope they win. Those kids, they'll remember that day for the rest of their lives," Minnick said. "For the fellas that are playing in this game, it's worth every bit of sacrifice. No matter what it takes, they'll never forget it."
"We're ready for a new championship team," Runnion said Wednesday, from Bozeman. "I hope this group of kids can do it."
The undefeated Blue Ponies squad will take on Billings Central at 1 p.m. on Saturday. The gate will open at 11:15 a.m.