Estancia cheerleaders lock arms as they carry out floor mats for a big pep rally in the Estancia High School gym Thursday. (DON LEACH, Daily Pilot / February 7, 2013)

Two years ago, Estancia High School's cheerleading program was in survival mode.

When Yumi Watanabe-Patterson took over the program as a walk-on coach in the 2010-11 school year, nine students joined the team.

"When I first started with the program two years ago, looking at what we had to start with, which was nine kids, clearly it was about cleaning house and starting fresh and building the individuals as a person," Watanabe-Patterson said Wednesday in Estancia's commons, where the team practices.

"One of the most common phrases that I heard the kids use, not just in cheer but in general, was, "I'm over it, I'm done. It was just a quitting mentality."

Jermaine Sanders, who became part of that original team, said that was a pervasive attitude.

"In 2009 and 2010, the school didn't really have respect for us," Sanders, now a senior, said about his team. "People didn't know what cheer was and nobody really wanted to."

The team had rebuilding to do, which included some painful pruning.

Even with an emaciated team, Watanabe-Patterson said she had to cut or bench more members because of failing grades in the classroom.

But through five tryouts throughout the year, the team started growing. When the school's rivalry Battle for the Bell game came around, it suddenly was able to field 33 members.

This school year, the team is a completely different picture, Watanabe-Patterson said. With almost 30 members, they've begun to garner recognition with team and individual awards, and the attitude of quitting has U-turned.

"Every moment from 2010 forward was kind of a chance to plant a seed," Watanabe-Patterson said.

Whether they realized it or not, team members showing up to practice, cheering at games or putting in volunteer time was a building experience, she said.

"All those moments are as though the little seeds that were being planted were being watered," Watanabe-Patterson said.

That personal growth has translated into team growth. At this year's United Spirit Assn. cheer camp, the team won an award they hold dear: the Spirit Stick, which is voted on by camp attendees and awarded to the team that best embodies the essence of cheerleading.

That essence is what the team's coach is proud of, and is hoping will continue beyond high school.

"Cheerleading is cheerleading, you're not going to do it forever, right?" Watanabe-Patterson said. "It's really about teaching them life lessons that they can carry forward for the rest of their lives."

jeremiah.dobruck2@latimes.com

Twitter: @jeremiahdobruck