By George Ferguson
Looking back, the 2002 Laurel Locomotives football season began much like the way the Havre Blue Ponies' did. Ultimately they both rebounded and now find themselves set to do battle this Saturday in Havre for the 2002 Class A state football championship.
But if you had asked first-year Laurel head coach Mike Ludwig if he thought his team was going to be in the big dance after its first three games, the answer would not have been a confidence-inspiring "yes."
The Locomotives started off the season with a tight 21-14 win over Billings Central, but then dropped two consecutive nonconference games to Miles City and Colstrip in which they gave up 54 total points while scoring 20. That left Laurel 1-2 as it began Central A conference play.
"We didn't start the season like we wanted to," Ludwig said. "The kids were adjusting to a brand new offense and we had some players injured early and that hurt us in the beginning of the season."
Laurel opened conference play with a 14-0 victory over Belgrade, but then came perhaps the darkest moment of its season. On Sept. 28, the Locomotives were soundly defeated by the Havre Blue Ponies 41-25. It was a crushing loss that could have really damaged the Locomotives' season. Instead, they proceeded to win their final four games of the regular season and qualify for the playoffs as the second-place team from the Central A Conference.
"We came into Havre feeling pretty good about our chances and they ended up really handing it to us," Ludwig said. "We just didn't come to play that night and Justin (Kegel) just torched us. He played a tremendous game."
Despite the loss to Havre, Ludwig said his team never got down on themselves. They learned from the loss, and the result was that the Locomotives didn't lose another game the rest of the way.
"We really turned the corner in Lewistown," Ludwig said. "I think after that game the kids figured out that we had a good football team, and we were capable of doing good things."
Ludwig also thinks the confusion over how the Central A conference championship was being decided was another thing that helped his team persevere.
"Our conference was weird this year," Ludwig said, "because in the last few weeks we didn't really know who was going to win the conference championship because of tiebreakers and points. But in the end, Belgrade made it a nonissue. I was just glad that we were able to focus and get through all of that."
Thanks to Belgrade knocking off Lewistown, the Locomotives finished second in the confusing Central A Conference at 4-1. They finished the regular season with a 5-3 overall record.
But Laurel barely made it out of the first round. Trevon Hegel intercepted a Hardin pass on the Locomotives' own 5-yard line with :11 second remaining to preserve a close 27-24 victory over the Hardin Bulldogs.
After the sluggish first-round performance, Laurel was clearly the underdog when it traveled to play the third-ranked and undefeated Dillon Beavers in the second round of the playoffs. After ending the game tied at 21, Laurel got a 10-yard scoring run from Hegel in overtime and was able to stop Dillon's two-point conversion attempt to win a 28-27 thriller.
As stunning as the win was, Laurel pulled off a bigger shocker the next week. The Locomotives again took to the road, traveling 462 miles to Whitefish, and pulled off a stunning 13-0 shutout over the second-ranked Bulldogs.
Two wins on the road over the No. 2 and 3 teams in the state, a total of six wins in a row: It certainly is an impressive run. So what has made the difference in the Locomotives turning around their regular season and becoming road warriors in the playoffs?
"I think one of things that turned our season around is that the kids didn't panic and they didn't pack it in," Ludwig said. "After the Havre game, the kids really started believing in our game plan and executing it really well. They all trust each other and believe in each other now."
"So far in the playoffs, I think the biggest thing is that we're not making many mistakes or turning the ball over," Ludwig added. "Our defense has also really stepped up for us so far in the playoffs as well."
The Locomotives now bring a 9-3 record into Havre on Saturday and one of the keys to their offensive prowess is definitely star quarterback Jeff Fischer. The 5-9 and 160-pound senior has been a consistent weapon in the Laurel backfield for the last two seasons.
"Jeff is a big spark plug for our offense," Ludwig said. "He is so talented and athletic, and he makes smart decisions on the football field."
Along with Fischer, Hegel is another player who has emerged as a key figure in the Locomotive option attack. The senior tailback moved from wideout to running back and has been a huge key to the Locomotives' playoff success. He has gained more than 100 yards in each of Laurel's three playoff games. Last week in Whitefish, he gained 173 yards on the ground. The Locomotives also have another solid running back in 6-2, 210-pound senior Matt Rosales.
While Ludwig says that his offense has been sharp lately, he also lends a lot of credit to his defensive unit, especially after shutting out the usually explosive Whitefish Bulldogs last weekend.
"Our defense played its best game of the season last weekend," Ludwig said. "The whole group has really come together lately."
The key to Laurel's defense up front rests in Rosales and big senior Mike Goff, who stands 5-11 and is a solid 235 pounds. Senior linebacker Jim Nelson (5-9, 210) leads a group of quick and physical linebackers, while both Fischer and Hegel are the keys to a secondary that Ludwig feels will again be tested by Havre's offense on Saturday.
Now that Ludwig has reached the state championship game in his first season at the helm, you would think he has time to enjoy it. Rather, he admits the past three weeks have gone by very fast. Even though things have been hectic, he still reflects on what it has meant to him to be here.
"It has been a great experience," Ludwig said. "Any time you're winning things are great, but I give all the credit to the kids. They have worked hard and have just done a tremendous job all season long."