By John Lauritsen

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — A huge high school basketball matchup Tuesday night was about more than just the game — the top-ranked North High School Polars faced the top-ranked Hopkins Royals.

And for North High, athletics have helped a struggling school make an incredible comeback.

Long lines of fans leading into a packed house at North High Tuesday were there to watch Polar basketball. The crowd in the gymnasium makes it hard to believe nights like this almost didn’t happen.

“Three years ago or so, they were talking about burning North High down,” Gina Villarreal said at the game. “So just to have revived the Polar pride, and to have the Polar Nation get behind the sports team has been just awesome to watch.”

A few years ago, North had just 67 students enrolled, but a culture change including the addition of an arts and communication academy has brought that number up to more than 300.

“We brought in a group of guys who wanted to come to North, who wanted to be a part of something special,” Coach Larry McKenzie said. “That’s what they bought into from day one, and they’ve worked at it to make it happen.”

McKenzie believes the academic turnaround is related to the athletic turnaround, and his players can attest.

“Academics are the most important thing,” player Isaac Johnson said. “Coach McKenzie stresses that so much. It’s the first thing. We have to study hard before practice every day.”

It was like that with football too, where the Polars were state runner-ups last fall.

The goal now is success in the classroom, and a state championship on the court.

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