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How Coolidge stays cool: Kiddie pools, punt returns and lots of water

As August began with a heat wave, this high school football team found ways to cope

Members of the Coolidge football team use a hydration station during a preseason practice Aug. 9. (Caitlin Buckley for The Washington Post)

It’s shortly after 10 a.m. at Coolidge High in Northwest Washington on what’s predicted to be one of the hottest days of the summer. The thermometer reads 89 degrees — but everyone’s internal gauge says it’s well over 100.

The heat is getting the best of the Colts’ football team, and it shows. Helmets are unsnapped, hands on knees, jerseys drenched in sweat. Players pray for even the slightest breeze.

Sensing a drop in morale, Coach Kevin Nesbitt extends a lifeline. If senior Marcus Skinner catches a punt, he says, he will end practice early and cancel the afternoon session.

Washingtonians are no strangers to hot and humid summers, but a heat wave as August arrived synced up almost perfectly — depending on your perspective — with the start of high school football training camps. Through the first two weeks of the month, the average high temperature in D.C. was over 90 degrees, and the heat index regularly eclipsed 100.

Milder temperatures have greeted the nation’s capital in recent days, but football teams in the District always are bracing for more heat, even into the regular season.

“It’s been crazy outside; nobody wants to run outside or do two-a-days in this heat,” Nesbitt said. “But if you want to be a good football team, you got to practice in the elements that you play in, so here we are.”

D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association guidelines state teams must downgrade to a padless practice if the temperature exceeds 89 degrees. If it rises above 92 degrees, outdoor practices must either be delayed until the temperature drops or canceled altogether.

Additionally, teams must complete an eight-day heat/sport acclimation policy, in which they gradually ramp up to wearing pads.

For Coolidge, dealing with the elements has looked like this: early-morning and/or late-evening practices, frequent breaks, hydration tests and ice-filled kiddie pools on the sidelines.

“I feel like the coaches are doing everything that they can to keep us safe while we’re out here, but there’s no way to take the heat away, so at some point we just have to lock in and grind through it,” sophomore Aujaveon Toland said. “When Coach brought them little pools out, we were all laughing and like, ‘What are we supposed to do with this?’ But after trying it, getting in them pools is the first thing I’m trying to do after practice.”

While the coaches can lead their players to the water, they are also relying on teenagers to properly prepare when not under team supervision.

Despite Colts coaches requiring players to drink at least a gallon of water per day leading up to the city-mandated hydration tests, nearly half of the present players failed on the first day of practice. It was impossible for the team to practice fully, which put Coolidge a day behind in the heat acclimation process.

“Just getting them to listen and understand how serious this heat is is honestly half the battle,” Nesbitt said. “As kids, they think they can just show up and go play, but we are trying to free them of that mind-set. Because even if you’re a sorry team, you can win a lot of games early in the season just by properly hydrating and being in shape.”

Day 7 of practice was a scorcher, prompting Nesbitt’s challenge to Skinner to earn his team an early dismissal simply by catching a punt.

Coolidge High School linebacker Marcus Skinner earned his teammates an early dismissal from football practice after catching a punt on Aug. 11. (Video: Kevin Nesbitt)

Skinner, who primarily plays linebacker, had never caught a punt before, including when Nesbitt gave him the same opportunity during last year’s practice and he failed to deliver.

“I get three tries,” Skinner asks hopefully.

“No. One,” Nesbitt says. “You catch it, no practice till 5 o’clock.”

“Two, two,” Skinner pleads, recognizing the magnitude of the moment for the Colts.

Nesbitt holds firm. “No do-overs in football!” he yells back as the ball is punted.

Skinner takes a few awkward steps back, then charges forward. The ball lands safely in his outstretched arms. The Colts erupt and sprint toward the air-conditioned relief that awaits them in the locker room.

“Dawg, it was hot as [crap] out there,” Skinner said later that day, while back home. “I really wasn’t trying to be the one out there catching that, for real for real, but when he called my name, I knew I had to try to make something shake for my teammates.

“Now that I caught it, they really can’t say nothing to me for the rest of the week, because we all in our beds chilling right now because of me.”