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Moscow Bears Rebound From Early Season 'Kick to the Gut'
Football threatened to disappear on the Palouse in August. Now, the Bears are in the thick of the playoffs
Published: 11/6/2020 12:20:55 PM
 


Click here for complete 2020 football tournament brackets.

Two months ago, the Moscow football team wasn’t supposed to be preparing for a second-round state playoff game.

In fact, two months ago, Moscow wasn’t supposed to be playing any games at all.

When the Moscow football program was partially shut down in August, the outlook on a potential season looked bleak. The Bears were allowed to practice as a team and scrimmage against each other, but were not permitted to play a regular season.

“It was just a kick to the gut,” said Moscow head coach Phil Helbling. “We were doing everything we were asked to do. We were wearing the masks, sanitizing, trying to socially distance at practice. Just all the rules that they wanted us to follow, we were following.”

So for the next few weeks, the Moscow football team transitioned to what Helbling calls an “intramural model.” They practiced together and scrimmaged, but it just wasn’t the same as real game-planning and system installation.

“We were just going to practice and compete against ourselves,” Helbling said. “But there would be no games. That was obviously very tough to swallow. Quite honestly, I lost a lot of my players at that point in time.”

Moscow lost about 10 players as a result of the (at the time) indefinite partial shutdown. Most of those players were seniors and players Helbling was counting on as key players in various roles.

It’s been an abnormal season in various ways for every team in the state, but even more so for the Bears. When Moscow received the green light to play a regular season in early September, it still had to wait nearly a month to play. The Bears missed nearly the entire first month of the season, and their playoffs hopes were almost dead on arrival.

But Moscow opened its season with a 54-7 thrashing of Bonners Ferry on Sept. 25 and it was full-steam ahead from there. The Bears won their next two games by eight points apiece, and heading into a mid-October game against league rival Sandpoint, Moscow was undefeated and riding high.

“It couldn’t have started any better, honestly,” Helbling said. “You could sense at that point in time that our kids were just hungry to play.”

A 31-21 road loss to Sandpoint gave the Bears their first loss of the season and was a bit of a wake-up call for a Moscow team that, for all the off-the-field adversity it had gone through to that point, hadn’t had to deal with an on-field loss yet.

“I think we needed that loss, to be quite honest,” Helbling said. “I think it was good for our kids. I think they need to be put in their place a little bit. Winning ball games is great, but if you think you’re just gonna show up and win, you have to be a little realistic.”

That loss humbled the Bears, and now, three weeks later after a dominant 45-7 first-round win over Jerome, Moscow gets another crack at its Inland Empire foe. On Friday night in the second round of the 4A state playoff, Moscow will again travel to Sandpoint — this time with a trip to the state semifinals on the line.

But the Bears aren’t treating it as a revenge game. To them, it’s a game against an opponent they didn’t play well against earlier in the season. And if Moscow wants to advance to within a game of the state championship, the mindset needs to change.

“I haven’t really talked about it as a revenge game,” Helbling said. “We’ve got a team that beat us. They were more physical than us from top down, from our front to our back half. They beat us, so here’s another opportunity.”

That message of opportunity is an important one in the Moscow football program. They weren’t even supposed to have a season. Then they got the opportunity. They weren’t supposed to make the playoffs with a four-game regular season. Then they did, and now they’re a game away from the state semifinals.

It’s all about opportunity for the Moscow Bears, and on Friday night under the bright lights of Barlow Stadium in Sandpoint, they’ll have their newest opportunity. One that is right there for the taking.

 
 


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