By Kim Staudinger
Even though Havre enters this weekend's Central A Divisional Tournament as the fifth seed with an 11-7 record, the Blue Ponies hope the reputation as a solid tournament team carries them through to the title game.
The Ponies are not worried by the fact they play Livingston, the host team, in the first round, nor are the Ponies worried about being the fifth seed, nor are they worried by being on the same side of the bracket as Lewistown.
In the 12 years in which Dennis Murphy has coached Havre, the team hosting the divisional tournament has never won the championship game.
"There's a lot of pressure to be the host team," Murphy said, referring to having to play Livingston in the first game. "They have to go to school and go to class. It's a lot of time to be sitting there thinking."
Aside from the pressure Livingston will feel by being the host team, the Ponies may also have some other advantages over the Rangers. Jayla McPherson leads the conference in field goal percentage (55 percent) and is third in rebounding, averaging nearly 8 rebounds per game. Havre is ranked first as a team in rebounding.
The Ponies also lead Park in nearly every team category, except for free throw percentage (57 percent to Havre's 55 percent), three-point goals made (2.9 per game compared to 2.3 per game for the Ponies) and steals (13.8 per game to 11.4 for Havre).
While Havre averages 2.5 more points offensively per game than do the Rangers, the Ponies' defense allows two more points per game than does Park's.
"The thing about Livingston is, if we can handle their pressure, we'll be all right," Murphy said. "They'll come out and press us from the start."
The Ponies realize their first-round game will be a battle, they know battling back from the loser's bracket is not something they want to deal with.
"Lewistown, Friday night, that's the game I want to play," Murphy said. "We've narrowed the gap. They're scared and don't want to play us.
"We're a scary team. I wouldn't want to play us either. More teams are afraid of us than we are of them."
Murphy and the Ponies are hoping their challenging regular season schedule will give them an added boost this weekend, noting the success the Ponies have had in tournaments over the years is partly because of the tough opponents they play throughout the regular season.
"Traditionally we have done very well at tournament time," Murphy said. "A lot of it has to do with our regular season schedule. The opponents we play are quality opponents and because of that, we do well at tournament time. I don't think this year should be any different. We're going to go down and play the best we can."
While some teams may have problems playing on the road or have problems with the long road trip to Livingston, the Ponies are used to traveling long distances and do not see that being as a problem.
"We've played better on the road this season than at home for the most part anyway," Murphy said, noting Havre always has a lot of community support when at tournaments. "With us playing, there should be a good crowd."
One disadvantage the Ponies may have going into the divisional tournament is having to face only teams with winning records. The top five teams in the Central A have winning records. Anaconda, who sits sixth behind Havre, has a season record of 9-9, making them a team that cannot be overlooked either.
"The conference is good this year," Murphy said. "We knew it would be like this. Unfortunately only three teams will come out" and go to the state tournament.
Dating back to 1995, at least five teams in the Central A conference have had winning records heading into the divisional tournament. In the last two years, six teams have been over 500.
Although the Ponies know they cannot pack their bags for state, the team feels if they can make it out of the divisional tournament, the state tournament is a wide-open contest.
"Eight, eight and eight" is the Ponies goal when taking to the road today for Livingston, hoping they won't have to play at any other time than they do in the opening round.
The Ponies first-round game against Livingston Thursday at 8 p.m.
The Dillon Beavers open the tournament against Belgrade Thursday afternoon at 1, followed by Browning and Anaconda at 2:45. Lewistown and Butte Central open the night games at 6 with the Ponies game to follow.