Winning is an attitude. So is losing.
For several turns of the calendar, a defeatist culture has pervaded Portage athletics. Teams were beaten before they even took the field or court. The coaching staff was a dizzying revolving door. Football, once the diamond centerpiece, faded into mediocrity. Almost across the board, the Indians slipped toward the bottom rung of the Duneland Athletic Conference ladder, the winning programs among its 20 sports a number you could count on one hand.
Her first full year as athletic director recently completed, Kelly Bermes can smile and look back at those lean times as a memory. Portage is coming off its most successful stretch in over a decade, punctuated by state titles in gymnastics and softball.
"It's been a lot of hard work by the coaches," Bermes said. "They've put in the time and effort and the kids are finally responding."
Athletics is a different animal than it was even 10 years ago. Not as many kids play for the simple love of the sport. They want a reasonable assurance that the team is going to win. Lacking that, they're not as likely to make the personal investment.
How did Portage turn it around?
"There's a lot that has to happen," Bermes said.
You can't pinpoint a date, but positive steps forward were taken in 2008, when Jeff Smith was hired as A.D. and Bermes as an assistant. The two rolled up their sleeves and got busy cleaning up the existing messes and moving forward with a new plan. While Smith, who resigned amid an internal investigation in March 2012, wasn't on board for the revival, his fingerprints were certainly on it.
"Jeff had already put some things in place. I have to give him kudos for getting things going in the right direction," Bermes said. "We're both very competitive. We had to sit back and look at the whole thing, where we were excelling, where we were working at it, where we had to start from the bottom, where the programs needed our help."
Smart hires brought desperately-needed coaching stability, which has made a huge difference. Idle athletes returned to action. Almost as important as the state titles, Portage's first since 2000, it posted winning seasons in nearly every sport, re-establishing credibility as a program. Baseball and girls track both broke long post-season droughts.
"Success breeds success," Bermes said. "At the spring parents meeting, I brought the gymnastics trophy. I challenged them. Kids walk by that and say, 'I want that.' The baseball players were touching it. It was fun to see. I'm hoping it does carry over, that it motivates all of them. You don't win those every day."
While pleased with the direction, Bermes knows there's still work to do. She wants teams to be more than middle of the pack in the DAC. Numbers in some areas are down. Football and boys basketball, any program's financial linchpins, remain a work in progress.
That said, the vibe has changed. The bar has been raised. The tip of the spear is now pointing up.
"There's a buzz among the kids," Bermes said. "It's amazing how quickly it can turn. We've never had kids who are happy to be here in the summer before. The kids are excited about sports. There's been a change."
This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org