Ponies put season on the line
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Saturday can't get here fast enough. For Havre High head football coach Troy Purcell, the last two weeks have felt like an eternity. But tomorrow the wait will be over as he and the Havre High football team square off against the Bigfork Vikings at noon at Blue Pony Stadium in the quarterfinals of the Class A football playoffs.
The Ponies enter Saturday's big clash fresh off of a first-round bye. The long wait since the Ponies' last game in Livingston on October 18th has been both good and bad according to Purcell.
"It has seemed like it has been forever since we have played a game," Purcell said. "But I think the week off has been more positive than negative because we have had time to heal all of our injuries and get fresh. But it has also put a little rust on our offense, like timing and speed."
The Central A conference champion Blue Ponies enter tomorrow's game completely healthy for the first time in nearly a month. Senior H-Back Steven Harman will return to the starting lineup for the first time in over a month. Harman has been recovering from a broken nose that he suffered on September 28th against Laurel. This weekend Harman is cleared to play and Purcell says it will be a huge advantage having him back in the lineup.
"Steven is such a big threat for our offense, both at wide receiver and running back," Purcell said. "So to have him back against a team like Bigfork is going to be huge for us. We'll use him at both positions and really try to take advantage of his speed."
Havre quarterback Justin Kegel and wideout Daine Solomon have also been hampered by nagging injuries over the last month but are also back to full strength just in time for the playoffs.
"That is where getting the bye was a big advantage," Purcell said. "To get all of our guys healthy was really key because Bigfork is a big physical team that plays solid defense. We're going to need all of our skill players for this game."
The Vikings come into Blue Pony Stadium with a 6-3 record. They finished third in the Northwest A Conference behind Whitefish and Polson and are coming off an emotional upset of the Butte Central Maroons last Saturday in Butte. The Vikings downed Butte Central 26-14 to advance to the quarterfinal round.
Purcell believes that Bigfork's defense will present the biggest challenge yet to his potent offensive unit.
"Bigfork is a big, physical, defensive team," Purcell said. "They play an eight-man front and basically try to completely shut down your running game so we are going to have to utilize our speed and quickness on the outside if we are going to have success moving the football."
"We have removed some plays from our offense that we don't believe we would be able to use against them. Other than that, we're going to try to do what we have been doing all season and try to execute the things that have made us successful offensively."
All-State Linebacker/Tailback Ben Haugen (6-2, 180) is the force that makes the Vikings go on defense and offense, and Purcell says that containing him on both sides of the ball will be key.
"Haugen is a real solid football player," Purcell said. "He caused Butte Central's offense all kinds of trouble from the linebacker position and he is going to test our defense when he gets the ball in his hands because he is a very powerful runner."
Fourth-year Viking head coach Todd Emslie agrees with Purcell's perception of Haugen.
"Ben is the toughest kid I have ever seen on the football field," Emslie said. "He is a two-time All-State-linebacker and a real tough-physical runner. He is a very exciting player to watch."
According to Emslie he and Purcell go back a long time and he's looking forward to matching up with an old friend in the playoffs.
"Coach Purcell and I are good friends," Emslie said. "I am looking forward to coming to Havre and having the chance to play a quality opponent like them on the road."
Emslie's team gained a lot of confidence and momentum from their win over the Maroons and he says the same challenge presents itself again this week.
"We gained a lot of confidence because that was a huge win in Butte," Emslie said. "At the same time the kids have it in their mind that they will have to go on the road against another quality team this weekend, and it will be very tough."
If the Vikings are to have success in Havre, Emslie believes that stopping Havre's big guns will be key.
"We have to contain their quarterback," Emslie said. "He is a tremendous athlete, who runs and throws the ball really well. We have to stop their speedy wideouts."
Like with all playoff games it's the little things that will be important.
"I think it will come down to special teams and who takes better care of the football," Emslie said. "But we're very excited to be here and we'll just have to see what happens on Saturday."
Purcell shares Emslie's playoff enthusiasm.
"There are eight teams left right now and we're one of them, so we are very excited and fired up to play this game," Purcell said. "We just have to stay focused on one game at a time and if we play like we're capable of I think we are going to have success."
The quarterfinal tilt between Havre and Bigfork will kickoff at noon on Saturday at Blue Pony Stadium in Havre. Since this an MHSA football game, Havre High activity passes will not be accepted. Ticket prices are $6 for adults and $5 for students. The game can be heard locally on 610 AM - KOJM.