By George Ferguson/Havre Daily News Sportsemail@example.com
It may have been 34 years and several close calls, but to Havre High football players, coaches and fans, Saturday's 34-21 win over Billings Central in the 2004 Class A state championship was well worth the wait.
Senior Marc Mariani broke a 21-21 tie late in the fourth quarter when he took a pass from quarterback Gary Wagner and sprinted 84 yards for the game-winning touchdown.
The win over the Rams ended a 34-year state title drought in Havre and also gave HHS head coach Troy Purcell his first state championship in 14 years as a head coach. Saturday's victory also capped a perfect season for the Ponies, who finished 12-0.
"This was a very hard-fought football game," Purcell said. "Our kids played unbelievable today. They are an outstanding group and this is a great end to a great season."
Havre's state championship did not come without some tense moments in front of an estimated 3,800 fans at Blue Pony Stadium.
The Rams stormed back from a 21-7 deficit by dominating the third quarter, scoring twice and taking nearly 11 minutes off the clock.
The Havre offense also sputtered in the fourth quarter, and things got even scarier when Havre was faced with a fourth down on its own goal line. But punter Scott Robinson was hit during his punt from his own end zone, giving the Ponies a fresh set of downs.
On the very next play, Mariani's heroics delivered the Ponies a state championship.
"The big play definitely hurt us today," said Billings Central head coach Jim Stanton. "Havre is a great team and they played great today. But I am proud of our kids. They played hard right to the end and we just came up a little bit short."
"We didn't play our best at times today," Purcell said. "But we have made big plays all season and our kids stepped up and made some big ones on both offense and defense. I am really proud of all of these kids right now."
Mariani's day started off ominously when he was knocked out on a hit in the first quarter. The blow was severe enough that he did not fully recover and said he does not remember the hit or portions of the game. Despite that, he came back to catch seven passes for 220 yards and two touchdowns. Besides his game-winner, he also scored on a 75-yard TD pass at the end of the first half.
"Wow, what can you say about Mr. Marc Mariani," Purcell said. "He made some absolutely unbelievable plays for us. He was the MVP of the game. Give him the game ball."
Wagner, who threw for 308 yards and had a hand in all five Havre touchdowns, also praised the effort of Mariani.
"What can you say about Marc Mariani today," he said. "He is a great athlete and an amazing receiver. He made some huge plays today and he really carried us home at the end of the game.
"This is an awesome feeling right now," he added. "We wanted to win this so badly for Coach Purcell and for our school and our fans, and we are so happy that we came out and got it done today against a great Billings Central team."
Havre High had 20 seniors on the 2004 roster and all of them remember the painful day in 2002 when the team lost to Laurel 21-19 at Blue Pony Stadium for the state title. That put this class on a mission to not only get back to the championship game but to make sure that another title wouldn't escape its grasp.
"This is something we have all been working for together for a long time and we finally did it," said HHS senior running back Scott Robinson. "This is just an amazing experience."
Said Purcell: "This was a total team effort today. Everyone played their hearts out in order to win a state championship, and I am just so happy for all of these kids, our coaching staff and our school, as well as the community of Havre."