Belmont Girls’ Hoops Coach Hart One of Few Females Leading Team to Semis

Photo: Melissa Hart, Belmont Girls’ Basketball head coach, conducting practice on Tuesday, March 3.

Melissa Hart is having fun at practice.

In the same Wenner Field House where she played on an 18-2 “Lady Marauders” hoops team and underneath the dusty banner celebrating the soccer squad winning the state championships – in which she was the starting goalkeeper – Hart is banging on a table with her hands, yelling out encouragement, having a blast a day before the (next) biggest game of the season.

“Cheaters don’t prosper,” Hart yelled over to a group of players who exaggerated the number of baskets they made during one drill.

For Hart and the team, the practice was a chance to iron out kinks and prepare a game plan for their highly-anticipated encounter in the Div. 2 North Sectional semifinals against number one seed and undefeated (19-0) arch-rival Watertown High on Wednesday, March 4, at 8 p.m.

“We’re not going to be nervous; we’re going to be … ,” said Hart to her team in the final huddle.

” … the ‘Eye of the Tiger’,” assistant coach Stephen Conley calls out, before going into an a cappella rendition of the Survivor song used in some “Rocky” movie as the team collectively laughed.

“Get that warrior face on. Stare them in the face and say ‘We are going to win. We have a road we’re traveling on!,” said Hart with the confidence of a coach who knows what will motivate her team.

Yet when she leads her team (16-6 with two playoff victories under its belt) out onto the court at Mystic River Regional Charter School in Malden, Hart will be an outlier in the sport; a woman coaching a girls’ basketball program.

In the top-three North divisions in the MIAA tournament this year, just 3 of the 12 head coaches in the sectional semifinals are woman – one of four in each division.

The drop is a phenomena advancing through the college and Olympic ranks. USA Today reported last month that since Title IX – requiring gender equity for boys and girls in all educational program receiving federal funding, including athletics – was enacted in 1972, the percentage of female coaches heading women sports programs in colleges and universities nationwide has slide from 90 percent to 40 percent. And that number will drop further as statistic show men are being hired at a 2/3 rate over females to head women’s programs.

In 2012, the Washington Post found that of the five sports — basketball, field hockey, soccer, volleyball and water polo — in which the United States sent a women’s team under a single head coach to the London Olympics, only the soccer coach was a woman.

Hart said since she began coaching the girls’ at her alma mater six years ago, she can only remember one man replacing a woman in the Middlesex League, which Belmont plays a vast majority of their games.

“It’s not been a problem in our league, but I have heard it mentioned,” she said.

While Hart would not say that she or another woman have an edge in directing girls, her players said a female coach – especially one who has played the game – brings an advantage a man lacks.

“Boys and girls basketball is completely different,” said senior Sophia Eschenbach-Smith, who, with fellow senior Elena Bragg, have been coached by males in AAU programs.

“From the pace, how girls rebound to just how boys box out, it’s those details that she has an advantage over a man,” said Eschenbach-Smith. “She can demonstrate stuff a little more comfortably than a man.”

Both players noted that men are quicker to “put you down, saying ‘Oh, you were wrong.’ That doesn’t really work. [Hart] is more supportive,” said Eschenbach-Smith.

“[Male and female] coaches give motivation differently. [Hart] gives energy through words while male coaches give energy through volume,” said Bragg.

Family pressures

While USA Today and the Post point to higher salaries and a greater acceptance by men that coaching women is a great place to continue in the game, Hart sees it from a different angle. While many women are eager to stay in basketball and coach, they – and she – will likely feel the pressure and cost to “our lives,” said Hart.

Hart has seen several women who were or wanted to enter coaching only to discover their lives – job, marriage, education and children – and coaching basketball (or other sports) just doesn’t mix.

“It’s unfair, but it’s still women who take on more of the childcare or just household tasks,” said Hart.

That’s not the case for many men, whether they are single or in a relationship, she said.

“The sheer population of men willing to prioritize coaching in their life, and interested, is much greater than double the women,” Hart said.

In addition, no one is going to get rich coaching high school basketball, outside of Kevin Boyle, who was paid $100,000 to “teach” boys’ basketball at Montverde Academy, near Orlando.

“[What] effects women in coaching is the idea that it does not pay much money and, in fact, might actually cost more to arrange childcare in the Boston area than the money made from the actual coaching job,” she said.

“I left college coaching (Hart was head coach at MIT for eight years) because of many of the reasons” including having kids and not making enough money to justify being away from her son and two daughters.

Today, Hart is an anomaly, a coach with children and the resources so she can commit to the job.

“I almost look at it personally as something I can do in this community. The financial gain from coaching is minimal, but [our family] can afford to simply use the money [for that purpose]. I make enough to defray costs of childcare. I do not think I would be able to do the job otherwise, at least not as I would like to,” she said.

“I am only fortunate that … I am in a place where I can do this, save the guilt from my children saying ‘[You] love basketball more’ or bemoaning ‘why I have to go again to basketball’,” she said.

In addition to the pull of family, there is just a greater amount of men who are able and willing to take on the challenge. In addition, women feel that they must “prove” they “know our stuff.”

“The majority of women who think they are ‘qualified’ to coach, are women who played through college,” said Hart. “There are plenty of men who did not play in college, may not have played even through high school, that are in the coaching ranks,” she said.

While playing at Hamilton College – where Hart still holds the record for single-season scoring average at 25 points per game – she discovered the male head coach was a collegiate diver with limited basketball background.

With women more often the ones pulled away from family obligations and the greater pool of male candidates, “and one out of four does not not even seem a crazy ratio at all,” she said.

But the falling number of female coaches at all levels can be reversed, said Hart. In addition to making coaching more “family friendly” by defraying the cost of childcare, practice schedules need to accommodate a coach’s busy life outside the gym.

“If it is something more people wanted to see, I think … athletic departments have to be flexible and creative to allow women to be able to coach without interruption,” Hart said.

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