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Ponies-Cowboys renew playoff rivalry

Miles City, Montana. To Havre High football fans who know their history, just hearing those words does not invoke too many good memories.

But to Havre High head football coach Troy Purcell and his Blue Pony players, it is just another place on the Treasure State map in which they will try to keep their remarkable playoff-run alive.

While the 2003 Blue Ponies (10-1) will make the long journey to Miles City on Saturday for another Class A football semifinal showdown with the vaunted Cowboys, it is easy to understand how big this matchup has become.

Miles City and Havre share a lot of playoff history and neither home field has been kind to the visitor. Havre was drubbed twice in the 1990s in the playoffs by the Cowboys, including the 1994 Class A state championship game.

Meanwhile, the Cowboys felt the same sting as recently as 2002, as a 9-0 Miles City team rolled into Havre on this very weekend with a berth in the state championship game on the line. And the outcome was no different as the host Blue Ponies knocked off the unbeaten Cowboys, 19-12, at a snow-covered Blue Pony Stadium.

So history would lead most to believe that the No. 2 ranked Cowboys (9-0) should have a distinct advantage when the rivalry is renewed on Saturday. But neither Purcell, nor longtime Miles City head coach Ed Rohloff, is paying too much attention to the past.

"Last year against Miles City was a great win for our program," Purcell said. "It took us to another level that we were trying to get to. But this is a different team and a new season and they (Miles City) are an outstanding football team. We also have a lot of confidence going in. I expect it to be a very good football game."

Said Rohloff: "The kids may talk about last year and use it as motivation, but I have tried to stay focused on this game. Havre has got another very good football team and we are also a very good football team and it should be an exciting game."

With history out of the way, the present performances of both teams would support both coaches' predictions that Saturday's game will be a barnburner.

For the second straight season, the Cowboys have reached the semifinal round of the playoffs undefeated and the Blue Ponies have also steamrolled their way through the playoffs.

Both teams are coming off blowout wins in the quarterfinals. The Cowboys knocked off Class A newcomer Frenchtown 32-20 at home, while Havre routed Northwest A champion Libby 42-7 on the Loggers' home field.

Recent play is not the only thing they have in common. Both coaches started the 2003 campaign having to replace veteran quarterbacks.

The Blue Ponies replaced graduated all-stater Justin Kegel with junior Gary Wagner, who has done nothing more than lead all of Class A in passing in his first varsity season, throwing for 2,244 yards and 24 touchdowns.

Miles City also had to replace an all-state QB in Matt Gittings with senior cornerback Darin Muri, who is a threat both in the air and on the ground as evidenced by a pair of 170-yard plus rushing performances this season.

According to both Rohloff and Purcell, finding new quarterbacks has been the key that has propelled both teams to the top of Class A football this season.

"Gary has had a tremendous year," Purcell said. "He has really worked hard to learn our system. Now that he is comfortable in it, he is having a lot of success. And Muri has done a tremendous job of taking over Miles City's offense. He is fast and is a really good runner. He will make things tough on our defense."

Said Rohloff: "We knew last season that we probably had the best backup quarterback in our conference. You don't replace a player like Matt Gittings, but Darin has done an excellent job of executing our offense and leading this team."

But Miles City's weapons don't stop with the quarterback. The Stevenson twins, David and Mikel, have rushed for a combined 1,775 points and 28 touchdowns on the season, to complement Muri in the Cowboys' option attack.

With new quarterbacks and a wealth of athletic talent on both sides of the ball, it would appear that no one has a distinct advantage heading into this game.

At first glance, Miles City may appear to have an edge because it has 19 seniors on its roster. However, according to Rohloff, over the course of the season the Ponies have become a veteran team as well.

"Havre had a lot of youth when the season started," Rohloff said. "But their juniors are veterans now. They have gained a lot of experience and it is scary to think that most of those kids have another season of football left."

Purcell was also quick to agree with the Rohloff's assessment of his team's experience.

"We have played 11 games this season and for some teams that is a season and a half," Purcell said. "These kids are veterans now. They know what it takes to get it done on the field and they understand how big this game is."

With veteran quarterbacks, veteran head coaches, high powered offenses and top-ranked defenses, things will be very interesting come kickoff.

Both coaches know that the other team's style of offense is significantly different than their own and they also admit that they both have their work cut out for them defensively. But both coaches also return to the old adage that turnovers will probably decide who moves on and whose season ends.

"Havre is a big play team and they have so many weapons," Rohloff said. "So our best defense will be putting together long drives and controlling the clock. If we can execute our running game and limit Havre's scoring opportunities, then I feel really good about our chances."

Said Purcell: "Miles City will probably control the time of possession, so we need to make sure that we score every time we have a chance. We also know that we have to take care of the football and not turn it over. If we turn the ball over it could be a long day for us. But I have a lot of confidence in this team and I think that if we do the things that have made us successful all season then good things will happen for us on Saturday."

The Class A semifinal tilt between Miles City and Havre is set to kick off at 1 p.m. at Custer County Stadium in Miles City. The forecast in Miles City for Saturday is calling for sunny skies and a high of 42 degrees. The game can be heard in Havre on 610 KOJM-AM.


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