20 years ago, a group of Blue Ponies came together to win an improbable Class A boys basketball state championship
The 2014 Havre High boys basketball team ended an eight-year drought of playing in the Class A state tournament Thursday afternoon. But this weekend also marks the anniversary of another Blue Pony boys team that ended an even longer drought. And in 1994, that drought ended with an improbable state championship.
Taking a look back 20 years at the Havre High boys basketball team, the recipe for success used to win the 1994 Class A state title stands out loud and clear.
That year was the last time the Blue Pony boys won a state basketball title. This year marks the 20-year anniversary that legendary head coach Bob Lanning was able to lead the Blue Ponies to a 61-60 Class A state title win over Billings Central in Bozeman. Brett Hamilton, Sam Dierman and Dennis Murphy assisted coach Lanning. And the team was built up of a talented group of players, including Tony Olson, Lance Lanning, Andy Smith, D.J. Baker, Rick Reynolds, Dustin Kraske, Scott Adams, Justin Hoefeldt, Justin Sparks, Troy Stoppa, Eric Peterson and David Curtiss.
The Ponies weren’t a strong favorite to win the title like they may have been in 1991, and again in 1993. But that didn’t stop the 1994 team from a great run into the postseason and eventually, all the way to the state championship game.
“We were a very talented team in 1991 and 1993.” Murphy said. “In 1994 they all understood their role and executed their roles. There was no real superstar, but we had a bunch of kids who just played their roles.”
Looking back, Smith, who would eventually become head coach of the same program he helped lead to a title, remembers the same key to success.
“We were just so excited to get to go to state,” Smith said. “Our record wasn’t anything special, 15-7 I think, so it wasn’t like we were winning all of our games or anything. But we just had a bunch of blue collar type players, guys that worked hard. We played hard and played well together.”
To get to the title game the Ponies had to overcome a devastating loss to Dillon at the divisional tournament. But the Ponies did rebound; they took down Sidney in the first round, then Anaconda by just two points in the semifinals. The one-point win over Billings Central was the final touch on a great season by a great group of players.
“I remember getting rocked by Dillon at the divisional tournament and that put us up against Sidney at state,” Kraske said. “They shot the lights out at the Eastern A divisional, but didn’t shoot as well against us, and we beat them. Then we beat Anaconda who was tougher than heck, and that was a great run. We weren’t expected to do anything but play well, and we made some plays in the championship game.”
But the Ponies were tested 20 years ago in their final game.
Adams knocked down one-of-two free throws in the final seconds to give the Ponies a slim advantage. But Billings Central advanced the ball past half court and called a time out. The Rams drew up a play and had one shot to ruin the Ponies’ season.
“They actually had a chance to win it at the end,” Murphy said. “They just missed the shot. We talked about it during the time out, and we were thinking they were going to get the ball into the corner, but they got the ball to the top of the key and just missed the shot.”
Time has flown by since the Ponies won the title in 1994, and some players who have stayed local can’t believe how fast.
Baker has kids of his own now. Andy Smith is a former Blue Pony head basketball coach who is now enjoying watching his second son go through the Pony ranks. Brian Smith is currently a senior playing for the Ponies at the Class A state tournament in Great Falls. Kraske is the Havre head girls coach and will take his Ponies to their third straight state tournament next week.
Many of the other greats from the 1994 Blue Pony team have since moved away from Havre, including coach Lanning, his son Lance, Reynolds, Olson and Curtiss, who were all All-Conference or All-State performers during their careers at HHS. Olson was also named the MVP of the state tournament and Second Team All Conference. Lance Lanning was also Second Team All State Tournament team, First Team All State, First Team All Conference and finished as the teams’ leading rebounder. Smith got Honorable Mention All Conference and finished as the teams’ leading assist man. Baker and Reynolds were named the teams’ best defenders, Kraske led the team in free throw percentage, and Adams was named the teams’ most inspirational player.
But as a group, no matter where life has taken them, the 1994 Pony team will forever be etched in HHS basketball lore.
“I think about that game kind of often,” Baker said. “It was definitely an exciting time in my life. But it is kind of hard to believe that it has been 20 years, and we have our class reunion this year, so that really puts time into perspective.
“I do have a VHS tape of the game, but I can’t watch it,” Smith said laughing. “I would watch it, but I don’t have a VHS player. Back then we just went out and played. When I was a coach and now a parent just watching, I feel like I get more nervous than I did back then.”
It won’t happen this season as the Ponies were defeated by Columbia Falls Thursday, but if the Ponies can earn another title they can end the longtime drought. After the win in 1994 the Ponies got a visit from a former Blue Pony, a player on the 1940 state winning team. Smith remembers the visit from the WWII veteran and his simple request.
“He was blind and his wife brought him up on stage to congratulate us after we won,” Smith said. “He congratulated us and said ‘well boys, let’s just hope it doesn’t take another 40 years to get another one.’”
A team that wasn’t picked to win a state title overcame several talented teams in the way and took the title right out from under all of them. Playing to strengths and sticking to roles was the key to success for coach Lanning and it made for a fun and memorable season.
“We were just a group of guys that played well together,” Kraske said. “My memory of that season was being a part of a bunch of unselfish players all with the goal of winning games.
“We weren’t the most talented team Havre High has had in its history,” Baker added. “But we worked hard and played hard every game. We took each game one at time and set out to win each individual game. We weren’t necessarily aiming for a state title at the beginning of the year, just took the season game by game and it just so happened the final game we won was for the state title.”