The Hart girls cross-country team won its third state championship in a row on Nov. 2, entering truly elite company: Only 14 other schools have a state title string that long (boys or girls) in the 43-year history of the Lower Peninsula state meet. The Hart boys team followed by earning their best finish in program history, taking fifth place.

And here’s a scary thought for opponents: Barring unforeseen circumstances, it seems likely that both teams will be even better next fall.

That comes straight from Hart coach Terry Tatro, who said after his team’s triumph at Michigan International Speedway that next year’s girls team could be his best ever — a remarkable thing to contemplate given the Pirates’ accomplishments to date, especially their 2018 title that saw them shatter the Division 3 scoring record and have six runners achieve all-state honors.

But it’s true: The girls team seems poised for a leap forward in performance. Brenna Aerts, Hart’s #5 runner at this year’s state meet and a 2018 all-stater, is the only one of Hart’s 2019 top seven who will graduate in the spring. The other six, including two-time all-staters Audrey Enns, Savannah Ackley and Lynae Ackley, all are set to return. (In fact, Enns and Lynae will only be juniors next year, so that gets the Pirates partway to dominating in 2021, too — but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.)

Joining those six runners will be current eighth-grader Alyson Enns. Enns is, of course, the younger sister of current Hart stars Alex and Audrey and yet another Ackley cousin from the family that’s almost single-handedly transformed Hart’s running teams. (The Enns’, the Tubbs’ and the Whitneys, each of whom has provided at least a couple of recent Hart stars, are all cousins to the Ackleys.)

“Another Ackley cousin,” Tatro said Nov. 2. “Someone else was asking me to explain it and I was like, ‘Well, you’ve got two, no, three cousins, two sisters, I don’t know. There’s a bunch of them.”

It’s not just her bloodlines that mark Alyson as a future star, though. Her times at the middle school level are comparable to those of her cousin Adelyn Ackley, who won three individual state titles for the Pirates and now runs at Division I Liberty University. Her two-mile personal best is 11:22.1, and she would likely have been right with the top three Pirate runners had she been eligible to compete at state finals this year.

Middle-school Hart coach Calvin Ackley, the dad of Alayna, Adelyn and Savannah, said the Pirates’ success has also drawn interest from other runners. He said five runners have transferred into Hart in large part due to the team’s success — “That is very flattering,” he said.

“We actually have very few eighth-grade girls or boys moving up next fall, but middle school spring track might turn up some more potential,” Calvin added. “Time will tell. Our seventh-grade numbers are really good and talented (boys and girls).”

Enns isn’t even the only future Pirate runner whose times mark her as a star. Jessica Jazwinski, currently a Hart seventh-grader and daughter of former college runners Robert and Katie Jazwinski, has a 3K time of 11:38.1 on her record from this month’s USA Track and Field Michigan Junior Olympic championship meet. That puts her right in with the elite Hart runners if she translates that to the 5K distance.

“Both Alyson Enns and Jessica Jazwinski, I believe, have plenty of talent and drive, if all goes well, to run D-I in college, and I can say that four to five years out,” Calvin said.

All this means that the Pirates should continue challenging for titles for years to come. Calvin Ackley echoed Tatro’s belief that 2020 could prove to be the team’s best year ever, saying he expects that group to have a shot at besting the 2018 scoring record of 43 points.

“If the team can stay healthy, motivated, and they put in the work, it could happen,” Ackley said.

A fourth title, should it happen, would put Hart on a list that currently comprises only five teams — Mt. Pleasant Sacred Heart girls (2015-18), Caledonia girls (1993-96), Rockford girls (1998-2002), Dexter boys (2002-06) and Charlevoix boys (1987-91). Only the latter three have ever exceeded four titles in a row.

Meanwhile, the Hart boys should continue to improve as well. Hunter Tubbs, the #4 runner this year at state, will be the Pirates’ only graduation departure, as the emergence of freshmen Clayton Ackley, Wyatt Dean and Seth Ackley (yes, more Ackleys) has bolstered the Pirates’ prospects for the near future. The boys’ team will also have reinforcements coming, with a strong group that finished second in the West Michigan Conference this past fall.

“I believe the boys team next fall is poised to really do some damage at the state level too,” Calvin Ackley said.

“We have a really good group coming back, and we have young freshmen that are all doing really well,” Tatro said on Nov. 2.