For several seasons now, the Havre High football team has continued to build the success of the program., but being bounced from the first round of the Class A playoffs is not a goal set by any team, and this season the Blue Ponies hope for deeper run in the playoffs.
After a long summer of off-season preparations, the beginning of the 2013 season can’t begin soon enough. Like most teams from all over the state of Montana, the Central A Blue Ponies will play week one of the regular season this weekend. Once again, the Ponies open up with the Whitefish Bulldogs, with the BNSF traveling trophy on the line. Saturday the Ponies and Bulldogs will kick off in Whitefish at 2 p.m.
Last year the Bulldogs defeated the Ponies 45-24, and two seasons ago, the Ponies defeated the Bulldogs 54-25.
A win over Whitefish would help the Ponies get off on the right foot, an important first step in what looks to be a very tough schedule.
A 4-5 record earned the Ponies a third-place finish in the Central A and a spot in the playoffs last season. But after a first-round loss to Laurel, the Ponies were left wanting more. This year will be just as tough to crack the top two spots in the conference, as Livingston and Belgrade both return standout squads. The Livingston Rangers are the reigning conference champions and lost just one regular season game a year ago. The Rangers also made a run into the state semifinals where they lost to Billings Central, the eventual Class A state champs. The Belgrade Panthers also put up another winning season, but fell in the first round of the playoffs. Their mark of six wins will be the target for the Ponies to get past if Havre hopes to earn a better seed.
Lewistown and Browning will also look to be competitive this season, but are struggling to match up with the rest of the conference.
“This year especially,” Havre High head coach Jason Christenson said. “Has a lot different energy than last year. We have more seniors, and our juniors have really matured from last year, and there is just a whole lot of leadership this year. Kids are taking on those roles, stepping up, and playing hard. Everybody is just doing a phenomenal job by being coaches on the field, and it is great to see that leadership develop in these kids. That has turned it into a fired up atmosphere, and I know the coaches and players are excited to start the season.”
The Ponies have a solid group of seniors to set the tone this season.
After losing Zach Plum, Thurman Holdsclaw and Chet Schrauger from last year’s roster, the Ponies bring in nine seniors. Plum and Holdsclaw won’t be easy All-State talent to replace, but Thomas Gruber, Jake Williams, Ned Malone, Trevor Jensen, Ryne Antley, Tristen Manuel, Dustin Odegard, Kyle Duitsman, and Tyler Adams should perform well. Plum and Holdsclaw leave the biggest holes to be filled in the receiving position, but Gruber, Malone, and sophomore Nate Rismon will catch a lot of passes this season.
“Losing two All-State receivers is tough,” Christenson said. “But kids really saw that there was opportunity, they saw that those holes were open, and they are jumping in and performing.”
The Ponies don’t have holes everywhere, and in rare fashion the Ponies are dealing with some depth and position competition this season.
The offensive and defensive lines return the majority of last year’s starters, including Odegard, Travis Adams, Ruben Stewart, Tyler Adams, and Rocky Kuhr. The running back position is also up for grabs, as Tristan Manuel, Jordan Schroeder, Jace Billy, and Kody Pribyl all compete for the starting tailback and fullback jobs. But after the Blue/White scrimmage last Saturday, Pribyl has shown the most big play capability early on. Billy is more of a power back for the Ponies, but Pribyl was impressive, showing a great nose for the hole, and the ability to fly by the defense. Whoever wins the starting job should have a big season if the offensive line can also step up to their full potential.
“For the first time since I have been here,” Christenson said. “We actually have depth. And there is a lot of competition on the line right now for starting spots. We are unsure who is the first group and who is the second group right now, but they are all competing at a very high level. It is good competition and nobody’s job is safe. We are especially excited about the offensive line, and we hope they take that on their shoulders and want to develop that running game and stop being one-dimensional. We have our entire offensive line back and they have that chip on their shoulder.”
A balanced running game would do wonders for the already potent Havre High offense. Sophomore Dane Warp is a returning All-State quarterback, and is poised to have a big season. But the line has to hold up to give him time to make the pass, as well as keep him off of his back. If the running game can come around, that too will keep the pressure off of Warp and the rest of the passing game. Last season, the run game was nearly non-existent at times, making it easy for the opposing defense to all out blitz the Ponies on several occasions. But with receivers like Gruber and Malone set up to catch a lot of balls from Warp, the Blue Pony passing game should see similar success to last season. Havre lost brute force from Holdsclaw, but adds speed from Rismon, another young receiver that can stretch the field for Warp.
“We want to take the pressure off of Dane,” Christenson said. “He got hit so much last year. He is a tough kid, but that takes its toll on a kid, especially a freshman. He took hit after hit, but we were one-dimensional. But that run game should take the pressure off of Dane. It will help us out, and the kids are working hard to develop that. We know Dane is accurate and he reads the defense well. He knows where his receivers are at and where they are going to be, so he is just going to be that much more dangerous if he has more time to throw.”
On defense, the Ponies are also very concerned about stopping the run.
Williams, linebacker; Schroeder, linebacker; Billy, linebacker; Gruber, defensive back; Malone, defensive back; and Tyler Adams, defensive end, will be key in stopping the run behind the line, and they have what it takes to do so. Gruber and Malone should also be able to help prevent big passing plays, while Trevor Jensen is also a talented defensive back who should make an impact. Players like Tyrell Pierce, Jase Kato, Dylan Carpenter and Logan Pleninger will also have an impact for the Blue Pony defense this season.
“The kids are really excited and flying around,” Christenson said. “I think defensively as a whole, we are going to be a pretty good team. We have focused on (stopping the run), especially with the safeties and linebackers picking up their reads and getting there fast. We worked on pursuit to address the run game, and right now the defense is doing a great job reacting and getting to the ball. And the defensive line, other than Thurman Holdsclaw at end, is all back. Everybody is more mature, bigger, stronger and smarter. The defensive front is going to help us a lot.”
Havre opens the season with Whitefish, but has a tough remaining schedule as well. The Ponies will face teams like Miles City in week two, as well Sidney in week three. Glendive and Polson are also on the non-conference schedule, while HHS will also face Livingston, Belgrade, Lewistown, and Browning before season’s end. The first round of the playoffs begin on Nov. 2, while the state title game set to be played on Nov. 23.
Saturday the Ponies will be in Whitefish to take on the Bulldogs at 2 p.m. The nonconference matchup is the season opener for both programs. For a full preview of Saturday’s game, see Friday’s Havre Daily News.