GARDNER, Kan. (AP) — High school football coaches are always eager for fall practice to start, and that rings especially true in small towns all across the Midwest, where every store closes up and every light is turned off except for those at the stadium on a Friday night.
Some coaches are even more anxious to get started this season.
Record-setting temperatures and stifling humidity have made life miserable from Detroit to Denver, Minneapolis to the Mexican border. And that includes causing headaches for coaches and trainers who worry about the health of their kids during informal workouts the last few weeks before school starts.
For Wapakoneta, the Redskins opened with a 7-on-7 matchup against Delphos St. John’s on a sweltering morning last Saturday. Players wore out a path to the watering stations behind each bench.
And it’s forecast to be even hotter when the Redskins entertain Coldwater, LCC and Sidney tomorrow morning at 10.
“With the heat this week, our players’ safety is our No. 1 concern,” Wapak coach Doug Frye said. “We constantly monitor our athletes. Hydration and rest is vital.
“We have also changed our times to go earlier in the day and taken a lot more breaks. Our athletes also bring their own water bottles to use on the practice field.”
The official first day of coaching in Ohio is August 1. The season opens August 26 at home against Bellefontaine.
“We make a big emphasis that our kids realize they need to come to practice hydrated, whether it’s something we’re doing after school or workouts in the summer months,” said Marvin Diener, the veteran head coach of Gardner-Edgerton High School in Gardner, Kan.
The high temperature in the small town a short drive south of Kansas City on Thursday was 101 degrees under a cloudless sky, and humidity pushed the “feels like” temperature to something approaching that of a blast furnace. It’s supposed to be even worse on Friday and Saturday.
“It’s Kansas in the summer,” Diener said almost with a shrug. He should know, too, having tutored numerous college stars and winning more than 200 games at several schools across the state.
“You just have to be careful and make sure kids know what to do,” Diener said.
That’s because football has become a year-round pursuit not just for pro players and college athletes, but also high school students who are sometimes willing to go to extreme lengths to be successful.
In many cases, that means attending a relentless schedule of specialty camps like the one run by former Chiefs offensive lineman Will Shields.
He’s been working with athletes at several schools in the Kansas City area in recent weeks, even getting onto the field with them despite the stifling weather.
Diener hosted a full-pad youth camp for third through sixth grade earlier this week, the start of which he delayed until the early evening, when temperatures were less brutal. He plans to follow a similar schedule when football camp officially opens for high school students in a couple of weeks.
“I think that’s consistent with most schools,” Diener said. “We talk to our boys about a lot of those things. And maybe the other thing we do that is different from some of other schools is I don’t want my guys thirsty, worrying about the heat. If our guys are suffering, we’re going to stop.”
That doesn’t help when coaches aren’t around to tell kids when to stop.
Informal workouts in the hot summer months can be particularly dangerous because of the long-term effects that heat and humidity can have on developing bodies, said Dr. Kathleen Weber, assistant professor of sports medicine at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
“Just like the elderly, kids are more prone to heat-related illness,” said Weber, who works with the White Sox and Bulls, along with teenage athletes and kids. “In this really hot weather, with this high humidity, the air vapor level is so high that teenagers often have a difficult time dissipating the heat.”
Weber said she’s seen coaches take a more proactive approach in response to numerous heat-related medical emergencies — and in some cases deaths — at all levels of sports.
“Despite some media attention and people becoming more aware, there’s still some people who are not as proactive about prevention,” she said. “We preach it. We tell them to go out early, go out late. Weigh your athletes before and after practice to see how much fluid they lost.”
Allan Trimble at perennial powerhouse Jenks High School in Oklahoma is among the more forward-thinking head coaches when it comes to organizing practices around inclement weather.
The first thing he does is identify players who haven’t been present for the majority of summer training sessions, because they may be at a much higher risk of heat-related illnesses. Those players are watched closely by team managers and the training staff when fall practices finally kick off.
Like Diener, Trimble has also done away with the old-school approach of “practice ‘till you puke.”
Jenks rarely goes more than 30 minutes without an extended break and players have iced towels and misting stations on hand, along with plenty of water and sports drinks. There is even a large “cold tub” on the sideline in case the training staff needs to rapidly cool a player during practice.
“Ultimately, we never want to take a chance on a player or a coach’s health and well-being,” said Trimble, who’s been in coaching for 21 years. “It’s simply not worth the risk.”
Wapakoneta Daily News sports editor John S. Hullinger contributed to this report.