BEMIDJI -- Rick Toward, a coach and teacher at Bemidji High School, was surprised last week with the news that he is a 2020 WEM Outstanding Educator Award recipient, and an accompanying $15,000 award-winner.

Toward is one of six statewide educators being honored by the WEM Foundation and the Synergy and Leadership Exchange for outstanding accomplishments and contributions to student learning, according to a news release. His recognition comes in the Athletic Coach Award category, which recognizes teachers who are exemplary coaches.

Toward has been teaching and coaching for 27 years. He currently teaches high school government and economics and coaches the Lumberjacks boys soccer team. Under Toward’s guidance, BHS has transformed from a recreational program into a varsity program that has won eight conference titles, played for seven section championships and reached the state tournament three times, including the title game in 2018.

During Toward’s coaching tenure, no players have been cut. While not every player is afforded equal playing time at the varsity level, Toward makes it his mission to clearly explain the role each participant will play. Toward believes the positive experiences they have had in his soccer program results in many "paying it forward" opportunities later in life.

“My guiding principle, learned daily from my late father-in-law,” Toward said in the release, “is to ask myself, ‘Is this in the best interest of kids?’”

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Toward’s father-in-law is Jim Mergens, a former BHS boys golf coach who won two state championships before becoming the school’s activities director.

Toward also serves as the director of coaching for Bemidji Youth Soccer.

“Coach Toward is a highly competent teacher and coach who makes those around him better people due to his modeling superior skills,” said assistant principal Brian Stefanich. “Coach Toward does right, does his very best and he treats others the way that he would like to be treated.”