TOWNSEND -- When North Middlesex athletic director James Bunnell moved into the position in the fall, he had no idea that the school's teams would improve in just one year's time.
North Middlesex Regional High School was at one time a rough and tumble customer for any of the opponents on its schedule. For whatever reason, it lost its foothold in the local sports world, but with the recent success of the Patriots collectively in 2013-2014 school year, North Middlesex fans after a long drought have something to cheer about.
"During basketball and hockey season, the fans were fun," Bunnell said. "The students helped bring the school back to life. They shed light on an athletic department that other teams in our league and the state have pushed aside that didn't think we were competitive anymore. By having the winter and spring we had, that trend is starting to change." The hockey team won the state title at 3A and will make the jump to Division 3 next season, where it will join local rival Groton-Dunstable.
Football qualified for its first playoff in over a decade, despite its 2-9 record. Chris Skelly won the cross country league championship, and the golf team also won its league for the first time in school history.
North Middlesex takes a step-down to Mid Wach B, where it will face schools with similar enrollment size.
"All of our fall teams were right there or on the cusp of making the playoffs," Bunnell said. "Next year, switching to Mid-Wach B will bode well in terms of our teams being more competitive.
There were ton of Lowell Sun and Sentinel and Enterprise All Stars, overall it was a really good fall."
The boys' track and field team went a perfect 6-0 in the Mid Wach A and won the regular season championship. Record setting 110-meter hurdler Michael Niemi placed fifth at the New Balance Nationals meet at North Carolina A&T University.
Moving into the spring sports season, baseball had its best season since falling in the 1987 state finals. Head coach Tom Bartelson and the Patriots won their first playoff game in a dramatic extra inning game with rival Marlborough.
The Patriots advanced to the Central Mass semifinals where it fell at St. John's 6-0. Prior to the Patriots' opening round game with Marlborough, maintenance workers wanted to give the athletes a field that they could be proud to play on.
"The maintenance workers wanted to prepare the athletic facilities the best way they can," Bunnell said. "Before the district game, the workers wanted the baseball field to look pristine -- that's the mindset the maintenance crew has here. The crew was still waiting for the field to dry out and they were still lining the field as the kids were warming up. Two players took it upon themselves walked in front of the maintenance person lining the field because they didn't want the person lining the field to get hit by a stray ball. What's really awesome is that the kids went up to those maintenance workers and personally thanked them for the time and effort they put into getting that field ready. Those are the things that sometimes make winning come in second place because that is something that you can take with you later in life."
It was not too long ago that Bartlett Gymnasium used a wooden fold out table in place of a scorer's table like other schools. Bunnell, with the help of the North Middlesex Athletic Booster Club, changed that this season.
"There is a change for the positive," Bunnell said. "The athletic department was in the paper more than anything else related to North Middlesex, and it was all for great things. Our school won three sportsmanship awards this year. That's huge. The coaches and kids are getting that there is more than what's on the field. The kids gain that drive to be better at a sport and that camaraderie and compassion that you need to be successful in life. The high school's sports teams are making such a positive impact on this community."
Pride has been restored at North Middlesex with football and basketball games being standing-room only.
"There are only more good things to come," Bunnell said. "There is a change in that culture which is such a positive thing to see. Our booster club has raised over $20,000 last year to put us at the level of some of the other schools. We used to walk in with basketballs that didn't hold air and old uniforms -- it is tough to take pride in your school when it seems like nobody cares. We have all that stuff that other schools have. These are things that we can be proud of. I am a part of North Middlesex athletics. I bleed red, white and blue. That's what you are starting to see with our athletes. They are proud to put on those uniforms."
North Middlesex saw nine athletes ink their letters of intent to play their respective sports collegiately-- three of which were to Division 1 schools.
"The kids came into my office with the article on them signing all happy," Bunnell said. "That's what high school athletics culture is all about. These kids are very successful here. You can feel the pride restored in the hallways. There is a lot of good happening at North Middlesex."