BIGFORK – Nobody on the Bigfork football team started this season thinking it would be easy. After the first couple weeks of practice, it only got harder.
The Vikings are coming off a season in which they finished 0-8, giving them a 3-22 record over the past three years. They have a new coaching staff. Turnout numbers were extremely low. Then they lost a teammate when Jeffrey Bowman died after collapsing at practice on Aug. 13.
After Bowman’s death, two players quit and five others were suspended because of academic ineligibility. This series of events culminated in a squad of only 14 players suiting up against 40 from Hamilton in the season’s first game. Bigfork lost 49-0.
“The odds have been stacked a lot against us,” said first-year head coach Bruce Corbett. “We took a hold of a team that was on a backslide. We are quite literally starting a new football program here.”
And that is exactly what excites Corbett and his team. They’re starting over. And things are already looking better.
The five suspended players, all upperclassmen, returned for the Vikings’ second game against Stevensville, which Bigfork lost 37-6. Though the Vikings lost, Corbett said the week of practice before the game was their best of the year. Also, Corbett said he’s amazed “by the quality of players” on the team, despite the low number.
“Our top 15 kids could play anywhere in the league,” he said.
The players are figuring out the rigors of Class A football and what it takes to win.
“At this point,” Corbett said, “we’re becoming a football team. I am very pleased with the development.”
Corbett was particularly pleased with how the team dealt with Bowman’s death and the publicity that surrounded it. It was a tough period of time, but the players handled it with maturity, he said.
“They bounced back and I’m proud of their ability to focus and maintain perspective,” Corbett said.
Mason Shoultz, a senior tight end/linebacker and captain, said it was difficult to concentrate on football in the aftermath of Bowman’s death. But he was impressed with how the players coped.
“It weighed on our minds, what happened to Jeff,” Shoultz said. “Our team did a good job of not getting caught up in everything else that was happening.”
The majority of the team consists of sophomores and juniors. Three freshmen get substantial playing time as well, Corbett said. Corbett looks at his young team with an eye toward the long-term.
“The future speaks very well,” he said.
As for the present, Shoultz and sophomore Troy Bolivar think this year’s crop of seniors, albeit small, provides a much stronger leadership core than last year’s. In fact, the team is a lot better overall, they said. After everything they’ve already endured this year, they’re definitely a closer team.
“This year we’re more of a group than 11 individuals,” Bolivar said.
This season will set the tone for the future of Bigfork’s football program, Corbett said. He would like to begin developing more of a football culture at the school, a collective mentality in which boys want to play football and people want to support it.
“I put that responsibility squarely on my shoulders,” he said.
Corbett said there are probably 15 or 20 kids walking around the school’s hallway everyday that could be as good as the current team’s starting lineup, but they don’t want to come out for football. Bolivar agreed, calling it a “disappointment.” Freshman Ben Sandry shook his head and said, “All that talent wasted.”
But for now Corbett is happy working with his current crew.
“The commitment is amazing,” he said. “They love football.”