No Pirate varsity football team next season

December 16, 2014

Hart FballBy Allison Scarbrough. OCP Editor.

HART — Citing dwindling numbers, school officials announced Tuesday, Dec. 16, that there will not be a Pirate varsity football team next fall.

The gridiron program at Hart has struggled over the last several decades and is one of only four schools in Michigan that has never made the state playoffs, said Hart Superintendent Mark Platt. School officials are hoping to get the program “moving in a new direction,” according to an announcement made by Hart High School Athletic Director Mike Rawert on the school’s athletic website. The Pirates will have a JV team next fall.

It is the first time in the football program’s 70-plus year history, that there will not be varsity team. “We are hitting the pause button for a year,” Platt said, “and will address what can we do going forward.”

If the school does not have a varsity football team the following season, Hart will no longer be in the West Michigan Conference, Platt said. As a conference rule, schools with two consecutive absences from varsity football seasons can be kicked out of the WMC.

A community forum regarding the issue is set for Jan. 13 at 7 p.m. in the Hart Middle School auditorium.

Hart has had several seasons recently with no JV team due to the low numbers. Platt said last season’s slim varsity roster of 15 players will lose 13 of those players to graduation in the spring, leaving only one junior and one sophomore interested in playing at the varsity level. The previous fall, the varsity team included players from all four grades due a lack of upperclassmen. “They played valiantly,” Platt said, but there was also a deep concern about the younger players getting hurt.

“This has been an ongoing conversation since the day I walked in the door,” said Platt who took over as Hart’s superintendent in July of 2013. For 12 years, Platt was involved in the Oakridge football program, which has consistently experienced success.

“There is a 40-year history of losing (at Hart),” Platt said. School officials notified the West Michigan Conference of its “rare” and “gut-wrenching” decision this week, he said. Football sign-ups for next fall took place at the high school last month, he said, and only two “age-appropriate” players expressed an interest in playing next season. “If we would have had 20 age-appropriate guys, then we would have had a team.”

The Pirates’ most recent winning season was in 1997 when they had a 5-4 record, the superintendent said. Besides the numbers issue, Platt said another reason that the Pirates have struggled is that weight training has not ever really “taken off” like it should. There has also been a growing interest in soccer and cross country, and both programs have been steadily gaining success at Hart. The football program has lost many players due to kids opting to run cross country or play soccer instead.

The focus to get Hart moving in the right direction will begin at the younger age levels, he said. “It is not unique to the high school — the rec league has been struggling, too.” Platt said he and Rawert plan to meet with Hart Area Recreation Club members this Friday to start working on a plan.

Platt said Hart is not alone in this situation. “There are plenty of schools in the same scenario,” he said. Mason County Central, North Muskegon and Shelby are also experiencing a decline in football participation.

As far as how the absence of varsity football next year will affect the district as a whole remains to be seen. The district stands to lose a significant revenue source due to gate admissions and concessions from Friday night games. However, the school will save money by not paying coaching salaries.

Head Football Coach Steve Hlady, who had coached the Pirates for five years, announced his resignation after last season. Hlady’s dedication to the program was outstanding, Platt said, and if he ever wants to return to the gridiron, “we will certainly find a place for him.”

Split votes by conference officials have shot down the idea of expanding the WMC with more schools and dividing the WMC into two tiers — one for large schools and one for small schools. Right now, Whitehall is the largest school in the conference, which is more than double the size of North Muskegon — the smallest school in the conference.

Hart’s high school enrollment is currently 390 with a district-wide count of 1,298, Platt said.

Other issues to be addressed with the recent decision are how it will affect homecoming, the marching band and the annual Pink and Green Bowl game against rival Shelby. It’s possible the school may have a “Snow Coming” during basketball season or perhaps have a Friday night boys soccer game with homecoming festivities during halftime. The Pink and Green Bowl will likely take place at the JV level.

In the meantime, the current focus is to get more participation in football among the lower grades, Platt said. “We really believe we can turn this around.”

 Photo courtesy of harthspirates.com

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