DeWitt, Mich. (WLNS) – After finishing as runner-ups in Division 2 last season, the DeWitt cheer team was ready for redemption this season.

The only problem: the Panthers lost a strong senior class and only brought back nine athletes from last season.

That lack of experience hurt DeWitt at the start of the season, but in January the chemistry flipped and led to an appearance in the regional finals.

DeWitt coach Candace Heskitt said, “They were watching me and I saw my dad, and I cried when I saw my dad because it’s been such an emotional season. So, they see me crying and they think ‘Oh no. We didn’t do it.'”

That would not be the case because the Panthers recorded the top score in all three rounds to win the regional title and advance to the state finals.

“I told one of our seniors what our round three score was, and she went ‘Oh!’ because it was the highest round three score at the meet,” Heskitt said.

DeWitt senior Hilary Ballard said, “We lost a lot of girls last year, so coming into the year we weren’t really sure if we were going to make it to states. But we built our way up.”

What made winning feel a little sweeter for the Panthers was the fact that it was the first meet they’ve won all season.

“It was kind of getting frustrating,” DeWitt senior Bre Maderitz said. “We know we could do it because we’ve practiced, we’ve worked together as a team. There was really a lot team bonding we did, which really brought us together.”

Ballard said, “It was like a month ago when we really started bonding as a team and we were like ‘Oh, we can really do this.’ It wasn’t just a dream, it was reality.”

Heskitt is a DeWitt alum and has been coaching the Panthers for 19 years, and this group has taught her something no other group has.

“Every year I think I learn a new lesson. I think there can’t be anything more after 19 years, there can’t be anything more to learn. I think these girls helped learn what true success is,” Heskitt said.

“I think seeing how the underclassmen can grow so much, with so much pressure underneath them, really helped our team grow.”