Belmont Girls’ Hoop Coach Hart Fired

Photo: Belmont High Girls’ Basketball Head Coach Melissa Hart working the sideline at the TD Bank Garden.

Melissa Hart, who led her alma mater’s girls’ basketball team for the past 11 years, will not have her contract extended for the 2022-3 year.

In a brief conversation, Hart said she was informed on Monday, March 28, by Adam Pritchard, the acting athletic director, that she would not be returning. Hart said the action came as a surprise to her as there was no indication of problems with her coaching or the program. She sent private emails to players and parents on the matter.

Pritchard did not respond to a request for comment.

Born and raised in Belmont, Hart was the starting senior goalkeeper on the 1985 state girls’ soccer championship team. She was a three-sport star at Hamilton College where she still holds records in women’s basketball.

Hart came to Belmont after coaching soccer and basketball at MIT and before that at Emerson. After missing the state tournament for six years, Belmont Girls’ under Hart’s coaching would go on an impressive run reaching three North Sectional finals and two semifinals from 2015-19. In 2019, Hart’s team was undefeated in the Middlesex League and finishing the season at 19-1 while being ranked the number one team in Eastern Mass by the Boston Globe. Including making the playoffs in 2020, the Belmont hoopsters put together an 88-32 record over six seasons.

Hart is the second long-time coach to leave the high school athletics program as Paul Graham is no longer the girls’ soccer coach after more than three decades at the helm.

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.

Belmont Courts Role in Attorney General Race

Maura Healey takes a three-point shot and “swish” – nothing but net.

The candidate for Massachusetts Attorney General who is battling long-time politician Warren Tolman to replace Martha Coakley (who Healey worked for as an assistant AG before resigning to run for the position) is seen taking the ball to the hoop on an outdoor court in her first television campaign ad released Tuesday, Aug. 6.

“When you’re a five-four pro basketball player, you learn to take on the big guys,” says a narrator as Healey stands under the basket as the ad recalls her time as an outstanding hoopster at Harvard and as a pro in Austria.

Upon closer inspection of the ad, Healey is hitting her shots on the basketball court at Belmont’s Grove Street Playground across from Belmont Cemetery.

Could it be that Healey selected the site due to her long-time friendship on and off-the-court with Belmont’s Melissa Hart?

“I’m not sure why she chose Grove Street and did not ask her when I saw her the other day, but I did tell her that was where I grew up shooting around and practicing on my own,” said Hart, a star athlete at Belmont High and Hamilton College and currently Belmont High’s girls’ basketball head coach.

As someone who first got to know Healey as a member of a competitive recreation basketball league the two joined to stay active in the sport, the Oakley Road resident believes the former Harvard basketball captain has the skill set to be successful in state-wide office as she has been on the court.

“I think Maura is a natural in the political arena because she is genuine, sharp, and willing to stand up and fight, but has a great warmth about her evident from anyone who meets her,” said Hart.

“I have not heard of someone who has met her and spoken to her that has not liked her and been impressed with her actually. She is committed to the law and to civil rights and justice. Maura does not want any political office she can be elected to, Maura wants the job of the attorney general,” said Hart, who invited Healey to participate at the Belmont youth basketball clinic last fall.

As for taking on Healey on the court, Hart said she is fortunate to have had the former pro on her side most of the time.

“Luckily Maura was always on my team, even if we were all just splitting up to play. I am not sure I can remember too many times she was on the opposite team or maybe wanted to forget!” said Hart.