Heat acclimation law alters Maryland football preseason schedules


“This is hugely inequitable to football players in the state of Maryland. We don’t have spring football, so we’re already behind the eight ball, and now you add in this,” said Seneca Valley Coach Fred Kim, left, of new regulations that will decrease preseason practices in Maryland by 15 hours. (Mark Gail/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
August 13, 2012

The familiar sounds of football echoed from the practice field at Seneca Valley on Monday morning, with whistles blaring and players barking encouragement to each other. The din reached its peak as the Screaming Eagles pushed through a five-station conditioning circuit to close their three-hour workout.

To the well-trained ear, the harmony remained incomplete for now. Players took the field for their second day of practice in shorts, jerseys and green helmets, and under new heat acclimation rules, the 12-time state champion — and public school teams statewide — will have to wait longer than ever before adding the distinctive crack of full-contact drills.

“You’re always excited to come out here and finally get to hit someone,” Seneca Valley senior lineman Timmy Walko said. “Right now, you really can’t because you’re only in helmets, but you still get that buildup of excitement. You know that when you do get to put [the pads] on, it’s going to be full go.”

With the new timeline, Maryland football coaches must deal with the loss of up to 15 hours of practice time this preseason with multiple practice session days — long a staple of high school football — virtually eliminated.

While most coaches agree the new measures — which mirror those in place around the region and country — address a problem that has caused dozens of preventable deaths nationwide over the past decade, some have questioned how much their implementation into the current schedule could adversely affect their players and preparations for a grueling season.

“You have to get kids ready for a contact sport,” Arundel Coach Chuck Markiewicz said, “and it’s difficult if you don’t have a lot of contact.”

In May, Gov. Martin O’Malley signed a law requiring the state department of education to develop a model policy for preseason practice heat acclimation and county school boards to adopt their own plans.

A 13-person committee that included doctors, coaches, trainers and administrators produced the state’s model plan, utilizing the National Athletic Trainers Association’s guidelines almost word-for-word.

Recommendations address education of athletes and coaches, an acclimation timeline and emergency procedures. All of the Maryland counties within The Post’s coverage area used the state’s model as backbone for their local policies.

The guidelines pertain to all sports, limiting all teams to one three-hour practice during the first five days of the season and eliminating back-to-back days with “two-a-day” practices, in addition to recommending a 30-minute online education course for all coaches.

But football stands to be most effected by the decreased practice periods. Most counties had regulations in place that required teams to run their first few practices without pads, but none was as stringent as the new plan.

Full-contact practices and two-a-day sessions can begin on the sixth day, meaning most teams will have just one day with two practices this season and possibly three full-contact workouts before they suit up for their first scrimmage. They are permitted a one-hour walkthrough on single session days, but those periods can not feature any equipment, including footballs.

Coaches who had become accustomed to about a week’s worth of double workouts are scrambling to fit the same preparations into a smaller practice window safely.

“It’s not about winning games to me,” said Quince Orchard Coach Dave Mencarini, who was a member of the state and Montgomery County committees. “The issue we all are facing is, ‘How am I going to prepare a kid for a violent game with half as much time as I’ve had in the past?’ ”

Ned Sparks, the executive director of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association, said the committee was sensitive to those concerns. But he said moving up the start date of practices with little notice was not feasible and moving back the start of the regular season would have been difficult, too.

Ultimately, the group found no scientific evidence that decreased practice time would result in more injuries and decided to keep the same time frame for the fall season. Sparks said the MPSSAA will re-examine the timeline before next fall.

In the long run, coaches worry the changes could hurt the overall quality of football in state public schools and, in turn, the ability for players to earn college scholarships.

Wise Coach DaLawn Parrish previously spent much of the first week of practice focusing on fundamentals, preaching the correct way to tackle and absorb a hit.

Instead, the Pumas will have four full-contact practice sessions before their opening scrimmage next Tuesday and then another scrimmage two days later.

Mencarini — the 2011 All-Met Coach of the Year — said junior varsity teams will be the most effected in the interim, a product of the lost practice time for the less experienced players that need it most.

“Everyone’s always talking about equity, equity, equity,” Seneca Valley Coach Fred Kim said. “This is hugely inequitable to football players in the state of Maryland. We don’t have spring football, so we’re already behind the eight ball, and now you add in this.”

The new model challenges coaches to be more organized and economical with their practice time, especially those trying to build a program.

First-year Magruder Coach Kevin Bernot, who spent the past three seasons at Rockville, will focus on getting a few base plays installed right away, so the team can participate in Monday’s tri-scrimmage with Wheaton and Bethesda-Chevy Chase. He said he hopes to have the full offense in place by the third week of the regular season.

“We’re all in the same boat,” McDonough Coach Luke Ethington said. “It’s not like one county is doing it, and another isn’t. Everybody’s going to be making some adjustments. Welcome to the world of coaching. That’s what it’s all about.”

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