By George Ferguson
In front of a large boisterous crowd and a statewide television audience, the Havre Blue Ponies served notice to the rest of the Central A Conference they are a team to be reckoned with.
On an emotional Havre High Homecoming night, the Ponies thrashed the Laurel Locomotives 41-18 Saturday night at Blue Pony Stadium.
"It was a huge win for us," Havre head coach Troy Purcell said. "So many people picked Laurel to win the conference championship this year and to get this win was absolutely huge.
"Laurel is a very good team but our kids came out and played hard the entire game and got the job done," Purcell added.
Things started off a little rocky for the Ponies. Havre tried a little trickery on the opening play of the game. Quarterback Justin Kegel took the snap and fired a pass to wide receiver Tony Ricci. After making the catch, Ricci attempted to throw the ball back to Kegel as he streaked down the sideline. However, Ricci's pass was slightly underthrown and Laurel free safety Jon Bauer picked the pass off and returned it all way to the Havre 8-yard line.
From there, Laurel standout quarterback Jeff Fischer scampered eight yards for the first score of the game.
"I was a little nervous after that first play happened and they scored," Purcell said. "But our offense got right back out on the field and responded."
The Ponies answered the Laurel score with a three-minute drive that resulted in a Kegel 1-yard touchdown run. The drive almost stalled on the 31-yard line as Havre faced a fourth down and 12 situation. Purcell opted to go for it. Kegel executed a perfectly thrown screen pass to halfback Steven Harman that resulted in a 24-yard gain that kept the Ponies in business.
"That was a key play," Purcell said. "We had some huge third and fourth down conversions throughout the game that were all very big."
With five minutes left in the first period, the Ponies mounted another long drive that was punctuated with a 24-yard touchdown pass to Daine Solomon, who made a tremendous leaping catch in the end zone. The Ponies made a two-point conversion to take a 14-6 lead at the end of the first stanza.
"Daine Solomon had some spectacular catches tonight," Purcell said. "I thought he played an outstanding ballgame."
The Ponies tacked on two more scores in the second quarter to take a commanding 28-6 halftime lead.
The first touchdown of the second quarter came with 8:54 remaining in the half. On a fourth down and 11, Kegel found wide receiver Steve Heberly at the goal line. Heberly made a nifty catch between two defenders for the score. Kegel had also hooked up with Heberly earlier in the drive on a key third down conversion that kept the drive alive.
Later in the period, the Ponies would mount another time-consuming drive that led to a Kegel 3-yard run.
Laurel threatened just as the half came to a close, but a Fischer pass was intercepted by Bobby Bergren just before the half ended.
The Locomotives came out of halftime inspired and intent on cutting into the Havre lead. Laurel put a long drive together behind several long Fischer runs and marched into Havre territory. However, Fischer tossed his second interception of the game, this time to Tyler Thompson.
Havre again took advantage of the Laurel turnover. Two minutes after Thompson's interception, Kegel hooked up with Ricci on a 28-yard TD pass that put the Ponies ahead 35-6.
The Locomotives got on the board once in the third quarter on a Fischer keeper and once more early in the fourth quarter on another Fischer scamper.
However, it was too little too late. Kegel found the end zone one more time with four minutes left in the contest, this time on a 1-yard keeper.
"Our offense was really sharp tonight," Purcell said. "Kegel threw some great passes and our receivers made some great catches, and our offensive line did a tremendous job of protection."
Kegel led the way with an outstanding offensive night. He completed 15 of 26 passes for 239 yards and three TDs. He also led the Ponies in rushing with 81 yards and three touchdowns. Solomon had three catches for 79 yards and a TD, while Herberly caught four balls for 59 yards and a score as well.
Besides offense, Purcell also liked what Kegel and the rest of his defensive unit brought to the battle.
"Kegel played great defensively. He was so quick to the ball and made some great tackles," Purcell said. "Our entire defensive unit did a great job tonight containing Fischer for the most part, and forcing some key turnovers."
Kegel had nine tackles, while Tyson Roe had eight tackles and a forced fumble. Levi Briese added nine tackles, while Thompson had a sack along with his interception.
The victory on Saturday night didn't come without a price. Starting tailback Steven Harman left the game in the second quarter with a broken nose. His status for this week is questionable.
"This was a tremendous total team effort," Purcell said. "Our kids were up to the challenge and they battled hard from start to finish, and that's all you can ask for."
Havre, 2-0 in the conference and 3-2 overall, sits atop the Central A Conference standings the teams heads into next week's showdown with defending state champion Lewistown. The Ponies and Eagles will meet on Friday night at Fergus High Stadium.
Passing: Kegel 15-29-239; Wagner 0-1-0-1; Ricci 0-1-0-1.
Receiving: Heberly 4-59-1; Solomon 3-74-1; Briese 2-31; Harman 3-29; Maider 2-19.
Rushing: Kegel 17-81-3; Briese 10-53; Solomon 4-8; Heberly 1-10; Harman 4-6.