By George Ferguson
The Havre High football team had been here before: an important overtime football game hanging in the balance with the outcome riding on a point-after-touchdown attempt. But unlike two months ago, when Havre opted to go for a two-point conversion in an eventual loss to Whitefish, this time the Ponies' fate rested solely on the foot of junior Daine Solomon.
Despite missing a PAT earlier in the game, Solomon calmly split the uprights, giving the Ponies a stunning 27-26 overtime win over the Bigfork Vikings in the quarterfinals of the Class A playoffs at Blue Pony Stadium Saturday afternoon.
Solomon's kick came just seconds after a Ben Mader 2-yard touchdown reception from Justin Kegel momentarily tied the game at 26.
In a bizarre set of circumstances, the Ponies almost didn't get to Mader's touchdown. or Solomon's game-winning PAT.
Bigfork's Ben Haugen needed just two carries to score on the opening possession of the overtime. However, the snap on the ensuing PAT went over the holder's head. Havre recovered, ending the attempt.
Following MHSA overtime rules, the Ponies got the ball on their own 10-yard line. On the first play from scrimmage, Kegel threw a screen pass to wideout Steve Heberly. However, Heberly did not catch the ball and two Viking defenders fell on it. The play was eventually ruled an incomplete forward pass instead of a lateral, giving the Ponies the ball back. But during the confusion several Bigfork players, thinking that Heberly had fumbled, removed their helmets and ran off the field, thinking the game was over.
They were eventually penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct, moving the ball to the 5-yard line and setting up Mader's touchdown reception and Solomon's heroic kick.
Havre head coach Troy Purcell was not only elated with the victory but also very proud of Solomon's resolve in a pressure-packed situation.
"This was a great win for us," Purcell said. "Our kids showed a lot of character and found a way to get it done in overtime. Daine Solomon came up huge today. This was his first time kicking in a varsity game and he got the job done.
"You have to give a lot of credit to Bigfork," Purcell added. "They played a great game all the way to the end."
Both teams spent much of the fourth quarter on the ropes en route to overtime.
With the game tied at 13, the Ponies were pinned back to their own 10-yard line, facing 90 yards for a game-winning touchdown. However, that drive took less than one minute as Heberly turned a Kegel screen pass into a 90-yard touchdown scamper that left the Ponies with a 20-13 lead.
Purcell said Heberly's speed, combined with a great block from Bobby Bergren, led to the great run. Heberly agrees with that statement.
"Bobby took out two guys in front of me," Heberly said. "That opened up a lane and I only had to beat one more guy to score. That block was huge."
With 3:56 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Vikings were faced with an 80-yard drive if they were to tie the game. They marched the ball to their own 37-yard line before the drive began to stall. A series of penalties and a fumble by quarterback Russ Aldrich left them faced with a fourth down and more than 30 yards.
Aldrich threw the ball up for grabs among several Havre defenders. However, one defender was called for pass interference, giving the Vikings some life and an automatic first down with just :45 remaining. Two plays later, Aldrich found wideout Cory Smith in the end zone to tie the game at 20 and force the overtime period.
Despite the questionable pass interference call and having to go to overtime, Heberly was just glad for the win.
"This was a huge win for us," Heberly said. "We did the things we needed to do to get this win and move on."
Heberly had a monster day offensively, catching seven balls for 217 yards and two scores, including a first-quarter touchdown that put the Ponies ahead 7-0. Heberly scored on a screen pass very similar to the one in the fourth quarter. This time Heberly turned on the jets and ran 74 yards untouched to give the Ponies the early lead.
The Vikings did not get on the board until the seven-minute mark of the second quarter, when Aldrich found all-state tight end Chase Averill for a 25-yard TD strike that left the Vikings down 7-6 after Casey Hanson missed the PAT.
The Ponies answered back thanks to a critical blocked punt from Tyson Roe with less than a minute left in the half. The special teams effort by Roe set up a a 2-yard TD run by Kegel, giving the Ponies a 13-6 halftime advantage.
"Tyson Roe's blocked punt was a huge play in this game," Purcell said. "It gave us a chance to take the lead into halftime and we capitalized on it."
The third quarter was dominated by defense, but the Vikings managed to tie things up at the two-minute mark on an 11-yard pass from Aldrich to Averill that left the game even at 13, setting up the furious fourth-quarter finish.
Purcell credited his defense for coming to play against a very physical opponent.
"Bigfork was the most physical team we have played all season and they are hard-hitting," Purcell said. "Our defense played exceptional and we shut down their running game and that was big."
Defensively the Ponies got five tackles, one sack and the blocked punt from Roe. Levi Briese added nine solo tackles and a quarterback sack. Kegel also had eight solo stops.
Offensively the Vikings managed only 49 yards on the ground while Aldrich led the way, throwing for three scores, two to Averill.
Besides Heberly's offensive exploits, Kegel finished 8-of-19 for 284 yards and three touchdowns. Like the Vikings, the Ponies also struggled in running the football as they netted minus three yards on the afternoon. While Purcell credits the Vikings' stingy defense, he also felt that a little rust came into play for his offensive unit.
"We didn't play our best game offensively because we were a little off from the bye week," Purcell said. "But I still think having that week off was a good thing."
Despite the controversy surrounding the finish, Purcell was proud of his team and knows that this was a big victory for his program.
"This was definitely a huge win, along with winning the conference championship, and our overtime win in Whitefish a couple of years ago. This ranks right up there," Purcell said. "Anytime you win in the playoffs, it is big and our kids showed a lot of heart and character and found a way to get this done."
The Ponies (6-3) will now prepare to host the top-ranked Miles City Cowboys (9-0) next Saturday at Blue Pony Stadium. The Cowboys advanced to the semifinal round with a commanding 42-7 victory over Polson in Miles City.