TOWNSEND -- When it came time to set goals for this year, the North Middlesex Regional cheerleaders kept things simple.
"They said, 'We don't care how we do, coach, we just don't want to come in last,'" head coach Jennifer Spear said.
On the heels of a difficult year, and with a small roster of "mostly freshmen," Spear said, expectations were understandably measured. The tight-knit group, however, soon realized this season could be something special.
What began as a breakout fall -- when the team qualified for the Central Mass. competition -- grew to become a once-in-a-generation experience. For the first time in more than a decade, North Middlesex advanced all the way to the state tournament.
The Patriots finished seventh at the state championship on March 10 at Tantasqua Regional High School in Fiskdale. Along the way, they captured the Mid-Wach league title and placed second in the Central Mass. regionals. The seventh-place showing at states was just one spot shy of qualifying for the New England competition, and only five points away from earning a place at nationals.
The transformation began early, said Spear, now in her second year -- and fourth season -- with the program. Even from the first days of fall practices, the coach could see her athletes were willing to put in the work needed to improve.
The numbers, though, were still stacked against the Patriots, who had just seven athletes able to compete during the winter.
"Some of the bigger teams that are in our area have 14-plus on the mat," Spear said.
Despite the hurdles, the team's growth continued, thanks in part to Spear, as well as assistant coach Brooke Chamberland and tumbling coach Paul DesBois. Also providing crucial leadership to the young squad were senior captains Jillian Hersey and Caitlin Cann, as well as senior Laura Abernathy.
"They came in much stronger than they did last year, so we qualified for regionals in the fall," Spear said.
As each week passed, the Patriots' scores soared higher, and that success only fueled their determination. The tireless work to improve was a crucial piece of the puzzle, Spear explained, but the team's unity and spirit also played a pivotal role.
"They were there to support each other," Spear said. "There was no negativity happening, none of the typical drama you hear about in high school cheer. Those girls were there every day, ready to push each other and pick each other up.
That positive attitude shone brightly at states. After finishing seventh, the athletes exuberantly ran to their coach to celebrate. They hadn't won, but they'd accomplished more than any Patriots squad in recent memory, and were so agonizingly close to being the first North Middlesex team ever to reach nationals.
"It was amazing to hear them be so excited," Spear said, "and say things like, 'We came in seventh, this is amazing!' You don't hear teams get excited about things like that."
The trip to states was an enriching experience for the Patriots, their coach explained. Unlike some other sports, she said, cheer teams are quick to offer support and encouragement to their opponents. That makes attending a high-level competition even more valuable, offering young athletes an up-close view of some of the best squads in Massachusetts.
From here, it's onward into uncharted territory for North Middlesex. Spear is fresh off of her first trip to states as a head coach, a handful of talented veterans are about to bid farewell, and the Patriots turn their focus to tryouts, coming up fast in June, and the promise of even greater mountains to climb.
"We're losing a couple, we have those three seniors," Spear said. "We have to see how we're going to build up from there. The girls who are left, who aren't graduating, are excited to come back for tryouts in June. ...
"It sounds like there's some buzz going on around North Middlesex. Some people who do other sports and chose not to do cheer in high school, for whatever reason, are talking about checking it out and seeing how the program has changed."
Now so far away from the days of dreading last-pace finishes, the Patriots are ready to aim higher with their future goals.
"I hope to see us make it to nationals next year," Spear said.
Follow Ross Edwards on Twitter @rossredwards.