GWINN - When Rob Soyring took over as the Gwinn High School athletic director last June, he was determined to rejuvenate the school's athletic program.
"It was flatlined. It just didn't have a sense of ... a positive pulse," the Gwinn native and 1992 GHS graduate said. "I knew that coming in.
"If we were going to find that positive pulse again, we had to re-energize the entire community."
Gwinn cheerleaders and the Modeltowners' tiger mascot pump up the crowd before the start of the basketball game against Manistique in Gwinn on Friday. (Journal photo by Zach Jay)
The last six months, the school's athletic program has seen a resurgence through its athletes, administrators, the booster club and local business leaders.
"I'm very satisfied," Soyring said. "It has honestly gone better than I could have dreamed."
It hasn't been easy. A once-thriving GHS athletic program began decline when Sawyer Air Force Base closed down. Once a Class B school, GHS is now in Class C.
"There was a gradual decline (in the program)," the AD said. "We had to transition as a community and make changes. It takes its toll on the community."
Rock bottom may have been reached in the fall of 2011 when the GHS varsity football team had to stop playing midway through the season due to low numbers, injuries and academic suspensions.
"The perception was we were taking a step backwards," Soyring said. "It ultimately took its toll on the community not being energized.
"If that's the case, student athletes ... aren't inspired and you end up with what happened to the football program."
He credits the school's booster club with starting the revitalization when it spearheaded a major improvement of the GHS weight training room.
"Sometimes, it takes a huge project like that ... to jump-start something. I think that was the starting point," Soyring said.
Booster club president Jackie Hart said a fund-raising campaign raised $22,000 - largely from local businesses - to increase support for the athletic program.
"We're working hard, brainstorming a lot of ideas and getting out to the public more," she said. "There's more participation now and a new energy in town.
"People are starting to push athletics in Gwinn."
Hart added besides the weight room renovation, the club has also underwritten the purchase of new tennis, cross country and basketball uniforms, as well as warmups for the girls volleyball team.
"Our tennis athletes had never had their own uniforms," Soyring noted. "They had to buy their own (team) T-shirts."
Another major impact on the athletic program was a "Meet the Model Towners Night" just prior to the start of the fall athletic season.
GHS athletes for those sports were introduced on the GHS track in front of an estimated 500 people. Carnival games and concessions were also part of the celebration.
"A group of business leaders stepped up and purchased fireworks for a show that lasted 20 minutes," Soyring, 38, added. "People were crying and applauding."
The event went over so well GHS just hosted a winter "Meet the Model Towners Night" with an inside carnival.
"It was packed," Soyring said. "What an awesome night."
He added new game programs have been printed that include team pictures; a new Model Towners sign stands in the athletic parking lot; the school's trophy cases have been enhanced; and all GHS teams have a full schedule of contests.
A catch phrase of "Dare 2 Be Great" has been adopted to encourage both athletes and GHS fans alike to bring new energy to the school.
Darren Sinnaeve has noticed a difference. The 1982 GHS graduate and longtime football and boys varsity basketball coach said the community is getting more involved.
"That's the big thing, the biggest change I see," he said. "We were starting to drop off in numbers (of athletes) in all sports and we had to get people to see the effort needed to improve the program.
"You need parents to get the kids out for athletics. It's tough when you have kids from Gwinn, Sawyer, Skandia and Northland.
"But right now," Sinnaeve, 48, added, "we're seeing the benefits (of the renewed effort)."
So much so that several basketball players had to be cut from the junior varsity boys team this season due to too many who wanted to play.
"Now we need to start freshman programs (in football and basketball), which is a good problem to have," Soyring said. "We'll finance freshman teams somehow. I just have to find gym space."
Hart said the booster club still has work to do.
"We want to make sure everyone has a chance to play and have everything they need to do so," she said. "We want the opportunity to be there for anyone who wants it."
Sinnaeve said the GHS athletic program has to "get the kids' numbers up."
"That's if you want to compete with the top teams year-in and year-out," he said. "You also have to have the mentality you're as good as the person you're playing against and be physically fit."
Soyring has plans for the future of the athletic program.
"I want to see feeder programs at all levels, from the elementary and middle school," he said. "We also have to get community backing for ... another gym.
"The lack of gym space is holding us down."
Soyring said all the work to this point - and more down the road - is to reach a specific goal.
"I want kids to go through the middle and high school feeling they were appreciated and we did everything possible to give them the best (athletic) experience possible," he said.
Craig Remsburg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 251. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org