By George Ferguson
It has been said that the playoffs are a brand new season. Then what a season it has been for the Havre High football team.
The Blue Ponies knocked off the top-ranked and heavily favored Miles City Cowboys 19-12 in a dramatic semifinal game of the Class A state football playoffs on a cold and snowy Saturday afternoon at Blue Pony Stadium.
For the Ponies, who are now 7-3 on the season, the stunning victory over Miles City earns them a spot in the Class A state championship game against Laurel on Saturday afternoon. The Ponies and their fans won't have to travel far as the game will be held at Blue Pony Stadium.
For third-year head coach Troy Purcell the victory over Miles City was an especially sweet feeling because next week's game will be his first state championship appearance since he became a head football coach in 1991.
"This is a great feeling," Purcell said. "This is our biggest win since I have been here. It is very personally satisfying."
Coming into Saturday's semifinal tilt, both head coaches were worried about the opposing team's big play offenses. Havre made a big play to get on the scoreboard first, but it wasn't the offense that ignited the Blue Ponies.
For the second straight game, a blocked punt proved to be one of the crucial plays in a Havre victory. With the clock winding down on a scoreless first quarter, senior Tyler Thompson busted through the Cowboys' offensive line and cleanly blocked a Taylor Harris punt attempt. Levi Briese recovered the ball at the Miles City 21-yard line. Two plays later Justin Kegel found senior tight end Ben Mader for a 22-yard touchdown to give Havre a 7-0 lead.
"Thompson's blocked punt was one of the biggest plays of the game," Purcell said. "We blocked two punts on the day and got a couple of turnovers and they were all very important in the outcome."
The Cowboys, who struggled with Havre's defensive scheme most of the day, managed to answer the Havre score with a methodical 88-yard, seven- minute drive that resulted in a 5-yard touchdown run by senior tailback Andy Plowman. The longest gain was a 12-yard pass play from quarterback Matt Gittings to wide receiver Shane Schantz on a crucial third-down play at the 50-yard line.
However, the Cowboys missed the point after attempt, leaving the score at 7-6 with just over a minute remaining in the first half.
Havre's big play offense struck again before the half was over. Kegel made a pretty play-action fake, fooling the Cowboy secondary, and delivered a long pass to wideout Daine Solomon, who fought his way past a pair of defenders to get into the end zone for a 61-yard touchdown. Solomon's point after attempt was blocked, leaving the score at 13-6 as the first half drew to a close.
Purcell believes that touchdown gave his team a tremendous lift.
"It was a great play and it definitely gave us a big advantage," Purcell said. "Kegel put the ball right there and Daine made a tremendous run after he caught it."
In the third quarter, the Ponies capitalized on another big play as Gittings was intercepted by defensive back Steven Harman at the six-minute mark in the period. Harman returned the ball to the Miles City 42-yard line and also was hit out of bounds, resulting in 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
The Ponies used the excellent field position to put together a solid drive behind several long runs from Briese. Havre drove the ball to the 1-yard line but failed to get the ball in the end zone on three consecutive tries. On fourth down, Havre went to Mader again as Kegel found him wide open on a short play-action pass in the end zone for his second touchdown of the day. The missed PAT left Havre with a 19-6 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
"We haven't used the pass to the tight end very much this season," Purcell said. "But the last two games, Ben has come up big for us in some key situations."
The fourth quarter saw Havre's defense hold Miles City out of the end zone until the four-minute mark, when a long drive by the Cowboys culminated in a Gittings 5-yard touchdown run. However, the Cowboys also missed another PAT that left them with a 19-12 deficit.
Needing to eat up some clock, the Ponies safely marched the ball all the way to the Miles City 30-yard line, chewing up all but 31 seconds of the time remaining in the game. Miles City took over on downs but was never able to mount a game-tying drive.
The game was marked with several big plays, but Purcell credited his defense for never surrendering any big plays to the Cowboy offense.
"Our defense gave a tremendous effort," Purcell said. "We were confident in our game plan going in and they executed it perfectly. Miles City is a great team and they put together two long drives but they never got anything big on us."
Havre got stellar defensive efforts from Kegel and Briese, who were the leading tacklers on the day.
"The entire defensive unit played great today," Purcell said. "But those two guys had huge days for us. The blocked punt and Harman and Heberly's interceptions were all big as well."
Offensively, the Ponies got a solid 95 yards rushing on 21 carries from Briese. Kegel completed 7 of 10 passes and had three touchdowns.
Miles City got 73 yards rushing from Mikel Stevenson, while Plowman added 64 yards rushing and a touchdown. Gittings, who usually generates a considerable amount of yardage, was held to just 21 yards on the ground and one TD. He also completed just three passes on the day for 20 yards and two interceptions. The Cowboys outgained the Ponies in total offense 235 yards to 213 yards, but the Cowboys also committed two crucial turnovers while Havre did not turn the ball over the entire contest.
Purcell admitted the wintry weather and the snow-packed field helped keep the usually explosive Gittings in check.
"I think the weather conditions were an advantage for us," Purcell said. "Gittings could never really turn upfield when he would go to the outside."
While the Ponies will now turn their attention to a rematch with the Locomotives, Purcell is proud of what his team accomplished on Saturday.
"The kids played so well in this game and it is such a tremendous win," Purcell said. "We knew we were underdogs coming into this game, and to go out and beat a team like Miles City in the playoffs is a great accomplishment for this program."
The Ponies will face Laurel for the second time this season. The Ponies defeated Laurel 41-18 on Sept. 28 in Havre.