North Sargent's state-bound basketball team stirs pride in a community
Gwinner, N.D. - These are tough times here.
Hammered by a series of buyouts and layoffs at the local Bobcat plant, the town's major employer for five decades, the folks here have been waiting a while for something uplifting, something to make them smile.
In their high school boys basketball team, they've found just that.
Bobcat Co., which has been this small town's major employer since it opened a plant here in 1957, began laying off employees in late 2007.
Many of the Gwinner plant's 1,300 employees lost their jobs or accepted buyouts that prematurely ended a lengthy career with the company.
Almost everyone in this town of about 700 residents has been affected in some way.
People have been waiting for a miracle phone call that the plant will go back to full strength, or even a dramatic shift in the national economy that will help put friends and relatives back to work.
But the town's residents could use any positive headlines after so many months of bad news.
Now, the North Sargent High School boys basketball team has given Gwinner something to cheer about.
The Bobcats, whose team logo is the same as the company that helped sustain the town through the years, has earned its first trip to the North Dakota Class B state tournament in the school's 49-year history. North Sargent will face North Star at 1 p.m. Thursday in the first round in Minot.
"Many people get tears in their eyes, and they get overcome with emotion, because it's a positive thing in a challenging time," said Paula Hansen, the mother of Bobcat senior Tysen Hansen, as she fought back tears of her own. "... It's an ideal time. It's a now moment, a now moment."
"It's a very bad time for this town," said Connie White, who has lived in Gwinner for 46 years. "The town has come together good through this bad time. But this has really pulled it together."
Everyone seems to be involved in preparations for the trip to state. Paula Hansen organized a group of women to create dozens of signs to decorate the town.
Slogans are painted on the windows of nearly every business, touting Bobcat pride.
"Caution: Extremely excited Bobcat fans at work" is written on the large picture window at Dakota Hair, the town's hair salon.
"This town is state bound" is written on the window one door down at the credit union.
A large sign congratulates the Bobcats on their Region 1 championship at One-Stop, the convenience store located less than a block from the high school.
"The town is absolutely buzzing," said One-Stop manager Jenna Johnson, whose brother, James, is a senior forward for the Bobcats. "... It really lightens the spirits of the town, considering everything that's going on with Bobcat laying off people. Even though we're going through tough times economically, this is a silver lining in the cloud."
This close-knit town's excitement reached its peak last week when the Bobcats returned home from Wahpeton after capturing the Region 1 title. The team's bus, driven by Paula Hansen, was met by a police escort several miles outside of town.
When the Bobcats arrived in Gwinner around midnight, they took a victory lap through town as a convoy of vehicles about a mile long trailed behind. Horns were honking and fire engine sirens were blaring.
Nobody was worried about waking the neighbors.
More than 100 people gathered at the school to welcome the team home, athletic director Michael Sorlie said.
On Monday, Sorlie said the line of people wanting to purchase tickets for the state tournament extended out the school's doors.
More than 450 Bobcat state tournament T-shirts have been sold.
"Everyone wants one," Sorlie said. "They should. I want one."
The Bobcat players, many of whom have had family members laid off, are thankful for the support and attention.
And they are all aware of what they've done for this community.
"It kind of draws the community in," said senior post Ryan Drevlow, whose had four family members laid off or take a buyout at Bobcat. "Sometimes people that would never see each other are here to support each other. For two hours, they get to sit here and they can forget about everything."
Readers can reach Forum reporter Heath Hotzler at (701) 241-5562.
Hotzler's blogs can be found at www.areavoices.com