By George Ferguson/Havre Daily News Sports/ firstname.lastname@example.org
By now everybody in Havre knows that the last time a Havre High football team captured a state championship the year was 1970. But to the undefeated and No. 1-ranked Havre Blue Ponies, history only dates back a mere two years ago.
In all there are 20 seniors on this year's team who were a part of the 2002 HHS team that lost a heartbreaking 21-19 decision against Laurel in the state championship in Havre. After just over 700 days of waiting, those seniors and the rest of the HHS team get their chance to set things right when they host the Billings Central Rams for the 2004 Class A state championship on Saturday afternoon at 1 p.m. before an expected record crowd at Blue Pony Stadium.
Coincidentally, the Rams' (8-3) state title drought dates back to 1968 when they defeated Havre for their last state championship. But it doesn't end there. The two teams met back on Sept. 3 in a classic game won by the Ponies 20-19.
Billings Central head coach Mike Stanton believed that his team had just played the best football team in Class A and his opinion hasn't changed. What has changed since that late summer night is the way his own team is playing.
The Rams come into Blue Pony Stadium riding high after back-to-back playoff wins over No. 2-ranked Polson (13-7) and No. 3-ranked Frenchtown (33-24). In those games Billings Central benefited early from crucial turnovers and Stanton said that turnovers will be crucial on Saturday afternoon.
"We were fortunate the last couple of weeks to have made some big plays on defense and our offense has been moving the ball really well lately," Stanton said. "I think the Havre game prepared us really well for those situations. We realized they were a great team and playing them tough gave our kids a lot of confidence for the rest of the season. That has carried over into the playoffs where the kids have been making big plays at crucial times."
Big plays are nothing new to the Blue Ponies (11-0). Being in a state championship football game isn't new either. HHS head coach Troy Purcell guided that unlikely Havre team to a runner-up finish in 2002, and last year the Ponies reached the semifinals before falling to Miles City. On Saturday, Purcell's team will look to cap off a perfect season with that elusive title win.
"I think that both teams have the same advantages in this game as far as preparation goes," Purcell said. "There shouldn't be a lot of surprises because we have played each other this season. We know what they run and they know what we run. It is also an advantage because you know the personnel. I don't think anyone really has an edge coming in."
Having been in the title game two seasons ago would figure to give Havre a leg up. Still, in 2002 Havre had drubbed Laurel earlier in the season only to fall in the state championship game. Purcell said that experience, coupled with the past game against the Rams, has helped immensely.
"In 2002, we blew Laurel out the first time we played them so we prepared for them the same way," Purcell said. "This year's game with Billings Central was really close, so this week we have keyed specifically on changing the things that they did that hurt us the most. It is nice being able to focus on those things in practice and working on ways to correct the things that went wrong in that game."
The win over Central was the last close game the Ponies played. They went on to a perfect regular season record, winning games by an astounding 40-plus points per outing thanks to the top-ranked offense and defense in Class A this season.
Quarterback Gary Wagner has had an all-world year, throwing for more than 2,500 yards and 33 touchdowns with a mere four interceptions. The HHS defense is anchored by a solid defensive line, an experienced group of linebackers and one of the fastest secondaries in high school football. The defense will take a hit with lineman Chad Seely suspended for the game because of a team rules violation.
It would be a bit of an understatement to say that Stanton has some concerns about the Ponies.
"Obviously, Havre is the best team in the state this season for a reason," Stanton said. "One of the big reasons why they have had so much success is their defense. They don't just get turnovers, they force turnovers and that is the sign of a great defensive team. We will have to play a perfect game on Saturday because any mistake will be too costly against a great team like that."
The Rams might just have the personnel to play that perfect game that Stanton is looking for. They are one of the most physically gifted teams in Class A football with offensive and defensive lines that average well over 6-0 and 220 pounds. They also have one of the most gifted athletes in the state at quarterback/defensive back in 5-9 senior Bryce Burton, who has rushed for almost 500 yards on the season. He is the catalyst of a Ram running game that also features tailback Kyle Bushman, who has rushed for over 1,000 yards, and senior wingback Mac Dye, who has over 1,700 all-purpose yards. With all of that talent, the Rams are poised to make the most of their opportunity to win a coveted state championship.
"Bryce Burton is the focal point for us on defense," Purcell said. "He is a talented player and he really makes their running game go. They can hurt you in a lot of different ways with the great offense that they have. This will be a huge battle for our defense."
Said Stanton: "Bryce has certainly been one of those kids you love to coach and he is a great team leader. What he lacks in size he makes up for in speed, skill and heart. He is a leader on this team. The kids really respect him."
Besides Burton, one of Purcell's other big concerns is that Havre has not been in a four-quarter battle since the two teams' last meeting. Both he and Wagner believe another close game is likely.
"Every week we have prepared for a game that will push us into the fourth quarter," Purcell said. "It is amazing that it hasn't happened yet. But having played Billings Central once and knowing how good of a team they have, the kids know we will be in for a huge battle on Saturday, especially with the state championship on the line."
While Billings Central will no doubt test the resolve of a Havre team which has demolished two playoff opponents by nearly 50 points per game, Stanton sees one simple factor that could determine his team's fate.
"We have been honest with the kids this week," Stanton said. "Havre is going to score on us. You just can't shut down an offense that is that good."
But for all the on-field strategy, the game may come down to a simpler factor - emotion.
"The kids are very excited to be here," Stanton said. "They have come along way from where this program was two years ago when we went 2-7. They have also learned a lot about themselves since we played Havre earlier in the season. The big thing for us is to just be patient and not abandon what we do best too early. If we do that, we should be in good shape."
Said Purcell: "This is definitely an exciting time for Havre High football, the school and the town of Havre. We have approached this week like every other week and the kids are staying pretty low-key. This year they have been on a single mission as a team and the goal has never changed. Everybody is very fired up and very focused to go out and try to complete that mission on Saturday."
The 2004 Class A state championship game between Havre and Billings Central will kickoff at 1 p.m. at Blue Pony Stadium. Gates will open at 11:15 and a capacity crowd is expected. The game can be heard locally on 610 KOJM-AM.