After nine months of silence, the atmosphere at Blue Pony Stadium will be electric Saturday, when the Havre High football team opens the season against rival Whitefish in the annual battle for the BNSF trophy.
The Ponies, who have dropped two straight to the Bulldogs in what is the annual season-opener for both teams, look to regain their foothold in the series and reclaim the trophy for the first time since 2011.
“Winning back the trophy isn’t the important thing,” HHS head coach Jason Christenson said. “The important thing for us is just getting a win and getting the season off to a positive start. There are some seniors that definitely want to win their last game against Whitefish and that is important. We just want to get that first win under our belt, which is a huge confidence builder.”
The season-opening tilt between the Ponies and Bulldogs features plenty of intrigue with both teams reaching the quarterfinals of the Class A state playoffs a season ago. Havre was knocked out by Columbia Falls, while Whitefish lost at the hands of Belgrade.
The matchup between the traditional Class A football powers also pits two of the top young quarterbacks in the state against each other. The Ponies boast an All-State passer in junior Dane Warp, while the Bulldogs counter with junior Luke May, who earned Northwest A All-Conference honors.
In last season’s contest, Warp was solid for the Ponies going 19-for-28 for 323 yards and two touchdowns. May on the other hand, didn’t need eye-popping numbers as Sean Foley stole the show with three rushing touchdowns and two return touchdowns to help bury Havre 45-27. With Foley gone to the Montana Grizzlies, May will need to play a bigger role for Whitefish to walk away victorious for the third straight year over Havre.
“(Whitefish) has a lot of speed and a lot of good skills guys. They have a very good quarterback,” Christenson said. “They are an enthusiastic bunch. They are physical and they will come in here fired up. That is the way they are coached and that’s the way that they play.”
Whitefish may have some talented skill players but so do the Ponies beginning with Warp. Yet, the junior signal caller has plenty of weapons surrounding him highlighted by tailback/wide receiver Parker Filius.
Filius, who is just a sophomore, enters his first full season as a starter after exploding onto the scene, accounting for more than 1,000 total yards in the second half of his freshman season. Junior Nate Rismon is also back after earning second-team All-Conference honors in 2013. He was third on the team with 43 receptions for 640 yards and seven touchdowns last season.
But the Ponies will not be able to take advantage of their playmakers if the offensive line fails to hold up against a tough Whitefish defense. The Bulldogs feature four defenders that earned All-Conference honors a year ago. Jack Streibich and Chris Park are both back at outside linebacker, while Walter Holiday and Brian Fauntleroy return in the secondary.
“Offensively, the o-line has to get off the ball and they have to execute,” Christenson said. “They are going to make mistakes, but they need to execute their plays. We have to be aggressive and go after these guys.”
Defensively, HHS will need to stand up against a physical Whitefish team that returns just a handful of starters from a season ago. The offensive line, which featured five All-Conference players a year ago has been depleted by graduation and only center Chaffin Ross remains.
Even with the losses along the offensive line, Whitefish will try to establish its running game and the ability of the Havre defense to hold it in check will go a long way in determining the outcome. That begins up front, where the Ponies are led by senior defensive end Tyrell Pierce, who earned first-team All-Conference honors last season.
The Ponies will also rely heavily on their group of linebackers that features Kody Pribyl, Jace Billy and Jase Stokes. Filius also factors in on defense at safety, while Rismon mans one of the corner spots for the Havre defense.
“We need to be tough on defense,” Christenson said. “We need to make our reads, we need to tackle. We can’t let them come out and push us around, so we really need to be aggressive.”
In the grand scheme of things, a win or loss against Whitefish will not define the 2014 season for the Ponies. Yet, it will provide a stern test for a young team eager to prove it belongs among the elite in Class A football.
“Every game is important, and we want to win every one of them,” Christenson said. “Sure the conference games hurt more when we lose, but we want people to look at Havre football and say those guys are tough and that starts by winning on Saturday.
“Whitefish is a very good team. They are experienced and physical and it will be a good test for us,” he added. “But with our youth, if we can go out and beat a veteran team like them, it will be a big step for us and a real confidence booster.”
Havre and Whitefish will square off inside Blue Pony Stadium Saturday with kickoff set for 2 p.m. The winner of the game will retain the BNSF Trophy until the two teams meet again in August of 2015 in Havre. The series is played two straight years at each home site. After the Whitefish game, the Ponies will take on another big rival when they travel to Miles City Sept. 5.