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High school football teams begin ‘heat acclimation’ practices

Temperatures in Western Pennsylvania have been below average lately, and forecasts call for much of the same the next few days. But the governing body of Pennsylvania high school athletics told football teams this is the time they must get used to playing in heat.

Although the official start of high school football practice in Pennsylvania is Monday, teams across the state were “feeling the heat” on fields Wednesday, practicing in helmets and shoulder pads.

The reason is a new “heat acclimatization rule” the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association has instituted this year. It is a rule mandated for football teams only, but some district coaches are not exactly enthralled by it.

The basic guidelines of the rule are:

• Teams must go through three consecutive days of heat acclimatization practices before they can start full contact workouts Monday. The heat acclimatization practices couldn’t start before Wednesday.

• Players are permitted to wear only helmets, shoulder pads and shorts the first two days of heat acclimatization practices without contact. They are allowed to wear full gear on the third day with no contact.

• The practices are limited to five hours daily and no practice can be more than three hours, with a minimum two-hour recovery period in between.

• No player is allowed to play in a scrimmage or game unless he has gone through three heat acclimatization practices to start the season.

• If teams don’t want to conduct the three heat acclimatization practices this week, they can do so starting Monday. They could not have full contact until the fourth day (next Thursday).

PIAA officials say they instituted the rule because of an increase in deaths of high school football players from heat-related problems around the country. According to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research at the University of North Carolina, 52 football players, 41 in high school, have died since 1995 because of heat-related causes. Most of the deaths occurred during two-a-day or three-a-day preseason practices, and mostly in the South.

Other states have similar rules. The PIAA Board of Control came up with its plan based on the recommendations of the PIAA sports medicine committee.

“I would say I know change is sometimes difficult,” PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi said. “But this change is directly a result of health and safety concerns for football players.

“I don’t know a football coach out there who doesn’t want to take care of their athletes. I think once they go through this for a year, it will be fine. I think, more than anything, it’s change that some resist.”

A sampling of some coaches finds differing opinions about the new rule. Some are fine with it. Some coaches don’t like it because they used to give their teams a week off before the start of official practice. Some players and their families would go on vacation that week.

A few coaches said that all teams condition in the summer and the new rule is bothersome because it involves more administrative work. All teams must come up with a written schedule of heat acclimatization practices that must be approved by the high school principal. Most teams are conducting the practices Wednesday through Friday (three hours a day).

“The intent is wonderful and the basic idea is fine,” Aliquippa coach Mike Zmijanac said. “But [the PIAA] making a blanket condition — no pun intended — for conditioning is a little bit arbitrary.”

In previous years under Zmijanac, Aliquippa players went through four weeks of preseason conditioning before the start of practices. Players would condition, lift weights and run through drills five days a week for two-and-a-half hours a day.

But such conditioning practices were supposed to be voluntary. The PIAA’s heat acclimatization practices are mandatory.

“I think everybody these days conditions in the summer,” Zmijanac said. “I know we aren’t taking 10 to 12 kids to preseason camp next week because I don’t think they are ready to handle it. … To me, this is like the little kid who talks in class and everybody has to stay after school. Find out the teams and coaches who aren’t properly conditioning and get after them.”

But Lombardi said not all teams around the state do condition their football players properly for practices in heat.

Mars coach/athletic director Scott Heinauer is a member of the WPIAL Board of Control and was in on some meetings when the PIAA was discussing the new heat rules.

“I don’t think too many coaches are happy with this rule because we don’t think it was a real thought-out plan,” Heinauer said. “There were a lot of questions. Some coaches wanted to maybe start these three [heat acclimatization] practices this past Monday and then give the kids a few days off before starting practice. But we aren’t allowed to do that.

“This was sort of just thrown at you. Why couldn’t there be a pilot program for a year, see what needs to be done and tweak the thing a little?”

George Novak, coach/athletic director at Woodland Hills said, “I know some schools are upset because they used to give kids a week off before the start of preseason camp [next week]. I just think maybe this was thrown at us too quickly. I just don’t know how much input there was from coaches or athletic directors on this.”

The PIAA passed the heat acclimatization rule in March.

“With all the issues that we had, we tried to tailor this to make sure it fit the needs of our membership,” Lombardi said. “Those coaches who were already doing the right thing with conditioning, we applaud them. But those who needed some direction on this issue, we’ve given them some support to make sure the athlete comes first.”

Washington coach Mike Bosnic said: “I think overall it’s a little more of a pain because you have to make sure you’re following procedures. But if you look at it like there are some time lines and guidelines now for you, I think in the long run it’s good.”

“I don’t think too many coaches are happy with this rule because we don’t think it was a real thought-out plan.”

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