HART — Hart coach Joe Gilbert entered this 2021 season with eyes wide open to what his Pirates were facing. Hart has only one player on its roster with any real varsity experience, and only two seniors. Most of the roster are underclassmen, and few had even played a full 11-on-11 game until Tuesday’s opener against Manistee.

Given those factors, it was no surprise that the Pirates rarely managed to maintain possession and allowed several early goals in an 8-0 loss to the Chippewas.

Gilbert said a compounding issue in Hart’s struggles Tuesday was that preseason conditioning did not go as well as he’d hoped.

“I thought we were in a little bit better condition than some of us were,” Gilbert said. “It also reflects on attendance at conditioning that we had. It was a little sparse for some people, and it showed today. I’m hoping we can take that and learn from it. We’ll be doing some extra conditioning exercises and training and making sure we’re moving the ball a little more.”

Manistee dominated possession throughout the game and especially in the first 20 minutes, where it put in six goals. Haylee Pepera was the one Chippewa to put multiple goals in the net in the game, with three total and two of them in the first 10 minutes.

“I think more than anything it was exciting for the girls just to step back out on the field and play a game,” Chippewas head coach Jaclyn Kaminski said.

“The girls did really well. We haven’t had much time to practice, so we went into the game focused on our passing and keeping possession, and the girls did a really nice job of that.

“We have a lot of tough competition going forward into the season, so it was nice to start off on a positive note. We have some things to work on, like our communication, just talking more.”

Kaminski was pleased with how well the girls did keeping possession, and looking for open players to make crisp, clean passes.

Olivia Smith had one goal and two assists. Also scoring goals were Allison Kelley, Emma Bevans, Ashytn Janis and Abby Robinson.

Maintaining possession has been a focus for Hart, which a few times tried to make passes and delivered them right to Chippewas. In one instance, a goal kick was intercepted by Manistee’s Allison Kelley and immediately returned for a score.

“They haven’t learned the team aspect of the full 11 yet,” Gilbert said. “We hadn’t had our full team there until yesterday. I’m hoping this was a good starting point and that they’re starting to pick up on, how do we move and work together as a team instead of (just) hustling? Let’s work smarter, not harder.”

A long-term solution for the Pirates? Building a middle-school rec program. Gilbert said participation falls off a cliff for Hart in those years because girls are not allowed to play multiple youth sports in the spring.

“They don’t play rec for sixth through eighth grade, then they come into high school, and it’s like, ‘OK, I haven’t played since fifth grade. Here we go.’” Gilbert said. “That’s something I’ve been working with our rec director to help build over the past couple of years to get more girls and boys involved. It’s going to take our school community to commit to multi-sport athletes. We’re not a Whitehall or an Oakridge. We have to have everybody out there.”

In the meantime, the Pirates will do what they can in varsity games, and Gilbert said they’ll likely populate their non-conference schedule with some JV games in hopes of getting their players age-appropriate experience. They’ve already canceled a game against Reed City that served little purpose to a team as early in its development as Hart is.

“I’ve been talking with our AD about, ‘How do we tackle this without having a true varsity team. What do we do?’” Gilbert said. “I’m glad the girls came out today and tried working for it and did the best they could.”

Greg Gielczyk contributed to this report.

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