Havre Daily News Sports
It isn't every day that a high school football team starts off its season as the defending state champions. Even though the 2005 Havre High football team is recovering from the loss of 19 starters from its undefeated team of 2004, they will still wear the moniker of champions for this season.
As new HHS head coach Kevin Sukut and his revamped Blue Ponies prepare to open their season against a much-improved Whitefish Bulldog team on Saturday afternoon in Whitefish, they aren't worried about defending anything. Instead, all of the Ponies are starting 2005 with something to prove - from the head coach to the last player on the roster.
"Last year was an amazing season for this team, this school and this community," Sukut said. "Coach Purcell and his staff did an amazing job. I know that winning a state championship was very special to everyone.
"But a lot of the kids on the team this year didn't really play a whole lot last season or contribute much on the field to their success," he added. "I think the returning kids on this team feel like they have a lot to prove and so do I. We're looking at this season as totally different from a year ago."
It has to be different considering the wholesale losses the Ponies suffered on each side of the ball.
The Ponies have to start this season with virtually new starters and backups at every position. Gone are the likes of all-state players Gary Wagner, Marc Mariani, Coda Tchida, Colby Mader, Ted Wells, Chad Seely, Tyler Wheeler, Nick Daniel, Brett Michels and Scott Robinson. But that doesn't mean Sukut's cupboard was bare when he arrived in Havre from Cascade late last spring.
"We have a lot of great players on this team who didn't get a chance to play much last year because of all of the senior talent," Sukut said. "But I feel really confident in the kids we have and in their ability to be a very good football team."
With any new head coach comes some changes. But Sukut hasn't made many to Havre High's offense, which has led Class A football in total offense each of the last three seasons. Sukut will spread the field and use multiple formations to confuse opposing defenses.
With new starting quarterback Tanner Donovan at the helm, Sukut will continue to utilize the vertical passing game that has made HHS so deadly offensively the last decade. With a pair of good tailbacks in seniors Jared Weigel and Mark Larson, this version of the Havre Blue Ponies will probably have a much more balanced look offensively.
"One of the things I really like about this team is our ability to be very versatile on offense," he said. "We can give defenses a lot of different looks and that will really help us keep them off balance. We won't just rely on the run or pass. It should be a real nice mix."
Defensively, Havre High also has had to replace all-conference and all-state players all over the field. With several key athletes playing both ways, Sukut is confident that the Ponies defense will be ready to go when the season gets unde way on Saturday.
As for the game itself, which is an ongoing rivalry that features the BNSF Railway traveling trophy, it should be a wide-open shootout. The rivalry between the Ponies and Bulldogs has been somewhat lopsided in Havre's favor the last two seasons.
Whitefish hopes to change that this year as veteran head coach Mike Ferda returns 15 starters from last year's team, including a host of talented players who missed most of last season with major injuries.
"There is no doubt that this is going to be a very tough test for our football team," Sukut said. "Whitefish had so many injuries early on last season that they really never had a chance to be the football team that they were capable of being.
"From what we have seen on film from them and in their scrimmage, they have a lot of talent and a lot of speed," he added. "So this is going to be a very tough but challenging way for our team to start the season."
Indeed, the Bulldogs' key weapon is speed. They have four tailbacks that split time in their option attack. They also return starting quarterback Zach Fennerly as well as a pair of outstanding wide receivers in senior Class A sprint champion Chris Hicks and junior Luke Fennerly. Hicks is expected to be one of Class A's top offensive players this season and Sukut is well aware of the damage that his speed can do to an opposing defense. "What Whitefish does really well offensively is utilize their speed out of the backfield. That is a major concern for us," Sukut said. "Chris Hicks has amazing speed at wide receiver and they will likely use him some at running back. He is a big focal point for our defense. We need to know where he is on the field at all times.
"Our game plan going in is to keep their running game in check and try to force them to throw the ball downfield some, because if they have a weak spot, that might be it."
Offensively, the Ponies will display their full arsenal of formations for the first time this year, and given the Bulldogs' youth at some defensive positions, Havre should be able to move the ball down the field.
Sukut said the most important thing offensively in any game, let alone opening day, is taking care of the football.
"I feel very confident that the kids are ready to execute our offensive game plan," he said. "This week of practice has been great, and I think our offense is now on par with our defense.
"In a game like this, taking care of the football is going to be very big," he added. "Neither team can afford turnovers, because it could be the difference in winning or losing. Still, I think our kids are very well prepared and they are going to play very well on Saturday."
Despite a new head coach and a lot of new faces on both sides of the ball, one thing that hasn't changed for Havre High heading into the 2005 season is its winning attitude.
Sukut said that being a part of his first rivalry game at HHS is something very special, but what is even more special is how excited and ready his kids are to play on Saturday.
"Playing for a traveling trophy like this one is a really neat deal," he said. "It really enhances what is already a great rivalry game.
"But one thing that has got me really excited about this game and the start of the season is the attitude of this football team," he added. "These kids have worked extremely hard from day one and they have a lot of confidence and excitement about this season."
Right now, the Ponies just need a game of any sort.
"The extra week of practice has been great, but these kids are tired of hitting each other," Sukut said. "They aren't just excited about this game, they need to play this game. I am fully confident that this team is ready to go down to Whitefish and play a very good football game against a very good team."
Saturday's rivalry game between Havre High and Whitefish is set to kickoff at 2 p.m. at Bulldog Stadium in Whitefish. The game can be heard locally on 610 KOJM-AM.