HART — Hart fulfilled a dream its juniors and seniors have been talking about since elementary school Saturday, winning the program’s first-ever district title in softball Saturday by defeating Hesperia 6-2.

The Pirates (14-15) advanced to the finals when Manistee forfeited the teams’ semifinal matchup, while Hesperia (19-13) eked out a 1-0 win over Mason County Central in a classic pitchers’ duel in the other semifinal.

The key inning in the title game was a five-run third by the Pirates which was littered with hard-hit balls. It started with hits by Cassidy Copenhaver and Skylar Smith and snowballed from there, with many Hart players getting in on it. Kloe Klotz drove in two runs in the inning.

“High school sports is all about momentum,” an emotional Hart coach Rocky Smith said. “It was just a couple of hits from Cassidy and Skylar, and the rest of those girls just kind of followed suit. They feed off each other.

“We talked about that this morning and last night. ‘We have to have energy the whole game no matter what, whether we’re sitting in the dugout or on the field. That’s going to be the difference in the game.’ We started having that momentum and they went quiet. Once they went quiet, that’s when we jumped on top of them.”

Maybe the biggest factor for Hart, though, was the return of pitcher Finley Kistler. Kistler had a stress fracture earlier this season and had thrown, Smith said, just 30 pitches since the end of April prior to returning to the circle against Whitehall the previous Thursday. Kistler was terrific, allowing just seven hits while striking out eight.

Just Kistler returning would’ve been a big boost, but an added benefit was that it allowed Copenhaver, who had been doing much of the pitching in Kistler’s stead, to go back to her natural third base and give Hart its best infield defensive lineup.

“Most of the teams have already seen me pitch, so it was nice to have her come back in and they got to see someone different,” Copenhaver said. “I think it was quite an advantage.”

Hart’s season has been littered with obstacles — Kistler’s injury, a strain that catcher Skylar Smith has played through off and on, a coronavirus-induced shutdown early in the season that kept Hart off the field until Apr. 22. All they’ve overcome to get there made the Pirates even more excited by the final triumph. Smith invoked the memory of those elementary and middle-school dreamers when addressing the smiling Pirates after the game.

“This group of kids, I’ve had them all the way through,” Smith said. “I’ve coached them since fifth grade because my daughter (Skylar) is part of it. They work so hard. It’s really a big thing. They deserve it. They’ve put in a lot of work. This year’s been challenging.

“I’ve been here seven years, and when I first took over, Hart softball was at the bottom of the conference and couldn’t win a conference game. It’s instilling that confidence that they can compete at a high level in softball. We’ve been riding these kids that, hey, they can compete. Show the other girls that we can compete in softball at Hart in this conference and at this level.”

Hesperia managed one run in the fifth, which Hart immediately answered, and got one more in the seventh. The Panthers loaded the bases with one out in the final inning, but couldn’t get any more runs in.

“We made mistakes and they hit them hard,” Hesperia coach Rick Martin said. “They came to play and they hit it hard. A lot of line shots. The top of their order hit. They were ready to play. That first game took a lot out of us, but we didn’t hit. We didn’t hit then and we didn’t hit this game. You can’t go two games and expect to win both without hitting.

“I can’t take it away from Hart. They came to play, and you could tell the way they were fired up the whole game.”

Hart advanced to face North Muskegon in the regionals, to be played Saturday at Calvin Christian. The Pirates lost twice to the Norse in West Michigan Conference play, but that was only Hart’s second day of game action, and the game Kistler pitched was a close defeat. It should be anyone’s game.

“The good thing is we have a lot of basketball (players) who have played at this level,” Smith said. “My daughter’s played all around the country in softball. She’s played at that level...That can help with the emotions and stuff. That’s going to be a huge factor, making sure they stay level-headed. We’ve had some close games, and the way we played today, we’ll compete with them.”

Hesperia 1, Mason Co. Central 0

Hesperia won a classic pitchers’ duel in the semifinal Saturday, beating Mason County Central 1-0.

Each team got only one hit, but the Panthers pushed across an unearned run in the sixth inning to make the difference. The MCC error was the only one committed by either team.

“Their pitcher throws hard,” Hesperia coach Rick Martin said of Spartan star Morgan Ahlfeld. “We couldn’t hit her. We put the ball in play and let them make a mistake and they made the mistake. We didn’t and they did. We won...The kids believed in themselves.”

Emma Joppich not only pitched the one-hit shutout, but she got the Panthers’ only hit of the game. Joppich struck out five and walked five.

“She’s a good leader, and she’ll be a good leader for us next year,” Martin said of the junior Joppich.