By George Ferguson
The interviews are over. There is no more game film to study. There are no more practices scheduled. All preparations have been made. It is now time to play football as the Havre Blue Ponies and Laurel Locomotives get set to do battle Saturday afternoon at Blue Pony Stadium with the Class A state football championship at stake.
For Havre High head coach Troy Purcell, like all of his players, it's his first time in a state championship game and he is just looking forward to game time.
"This has been a good week so far," Purcell said. "Practice has gone pretty well. The coaches are excited and the kids are excited and we're just ready to play this game."
Both the Ponies (7-3) and the Locomotives (8-3) are riding a tidal wave of momentum coming into Saturday's state championship tilt.
Havre is coming off a dominating defensive performance in a 19-12 semifinal win over top-ranked Miles City. The Ponies defeated Bigfork in overtime 27-26 in the quarterfinal round. Purcell says that the last two weeks have seen both tremendous highs and lows.
"It is hard to really describe the playoffs for us," Purcell said. "The last two weeks have been an emotional rollercoaster and now we're just excited to be here."
Meanwhile, the Locomotives started the playoffs one week earlier with a first-round win over Hardin. Then Laurel took to the road to defeat the No. 3-ranked Dillon Beavers 28-27 in overtime. Last week the Locomotives shut out the No. 2- ranked Whitefish Bulldogs, also on the road, 13-0.
According to first-year head coach Mike Ludwig, the playoffs have been emotionally taxing, but the fact that his Locomotives have won two huge games on the road gives him a sense of confidence as they come to Havre.
"The playoffs have been a blur so far," Ludwig said. "It seems like we've been on the road the whole time. I think winning those last two games has really given our kids a sense of confidence because they know they can play on the road in the playoffs."
There is a bit of recent history between the two teams, as Havre knocked off the Locomotives 41-25 on Sept. 28 en route to the Central A Conference championship. Both coaches agree that the game in September has little bearing on the rematch Saturday.
"We told the kids that we have not played the team that we're going to play on Saturday," Purcell said. "At this point past games aren't really a factor."
Ludwig also thinks his unit is a completely different team than the one that was in Havre in late September.
"In that game in Havre, we just didn't come to play that night and Havre really handed it to us," Ludwig said. "I'd like to think we're a completely different team right now. The kids are playing with a whole lot of confidence."
Putting emotions and past meetings aside, both coaches feel very similarly on what the keys to winning will be.
"We know that we are going to have to take care of the football," Purcell said. "That and being sharp on special teams will be very important in this game."
Ludwig agreed, saying his team has been taking care of the football very well lately. Neither Havre nor Laurel committed a turnover in their respective semifinal games.
Another common denominator will be defense. Both teams' defensive units are coming off of very dominating performances against highly explosive offenses. It won't be easy on Saturday as both teams have stellar offensive weapons led by quarterbacks Justin Kegel of Havre and Jeff Fischer of Laurel.
"We feel like we have a great defensive package for this game," Purcell said. "We have to contain Fisher, obviously, and they have some tremendous running backs. I think keeping their offense off the field will be very important if we are going to have success against them."
While both teams tout very powerful offenses, they differ in how they score points. Ludwig feels that sustaining drives and eating clock will not only be the most effective way to operate offensively, also it will keep Kegel and company off the field.
"I feel like we are going to have to move the ball and sustain some drives," Ludwig said. "Chewing up the clock may be our best defense against Havre's offense."
During the season and especially in the playoffs, Havre has lived on the big play. The Pony offense can and will explode for a long play at any time. It's something Purcell doesn't want to lose, yet he also knows consistency will be key.
"We feel like Laurel will dictate us offensively because we can do so many things on offense," Purcell said. "But we do know that we have to have a good combination of run and pass. We are going to have to score points.
"We also need to put some long drives together because if Laurel isn't on the field offensively they can't score," Purcell added.
Stopping Havre's big play offense is definitely a concern to Ludwig, especially with weapons like Steve Heberly, Daine Solomon, Levi Briese, Steven Harman and the recent emergence of tight end Ben Mader.
"We aren't going to really change what we have been doing defensively," Ludwig said. "It is going to come down to the fact that we are going to have to make sure that we cover everybody."
As for the state of mind the Blue Ponies are in right now, they are filled with a focused excitement, according to Purcell and senior standout lineman Tyson Roe.
"It is very exciting to be in the state championship game," Roe said. "We just have to believe in each other and hopefully we'll get it done."
Said Purcell: "I think that the kids are very confident and excited right now. We're in the state championship game and we're at home. The kids are loose and focused and they believe in what we're doing."
Purcell is also mindful of the tremendous support that the community has shown since the playoffs began.
"The support from the community has been tremendous," Purcell said. "Everywhere we go in town there are supportive signs and that has been really great for us and we all appreciate that very much."
The Class A state championship game between Havre and Laurel will kick off at 1 p.m. at Blue Pony Stadium on Saturday. The game can be heard locally on 610 KOJM-AM. The game is sanctioned by the MHSA and Havre High School activity passes will not be valid. Admission is $6 for adults and $5 for students.