Coaches, players ready to weather heat as practices begin


Amine Alaoui is ready for the heat that might come with the late August football practices that begin today at public high schools throughout the state.

Just two weeks ago, the 16-year-old senior at Towson High School and his teammates braved temperatures approaching 100 degrees to complete their conditioning, which consisted of several agility drills and sprints.

"A couple of times, it was too hot, but we would prefer to go outside; it was manageable," said Alaoui, who plays fullback and linebacker. "It's tough for some guys, but I like it because getting it over with helps prepare for the season."

However, heat-related illnesses loom as a perennial concern for high school programs, even as administrators, coaches and players become increasingly aware of preventive tactics.

Last week a 16-year-old from Stafford High near Fredericksburg, Va., became the nation's third heat-related fatality during high school or youth workouts this summer, according to Fred Mueller of the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research in Chapel Hill, N.C. Heat is a suspected cause in two other deaths at workouts, Mueller said.

"That's a big number if it's all heatstroke," said Mueller, noting that eight is the highest number of heat-related fatalities from all levels of football, in 1970.

High-profile deaths related to heat and football have spurred greater knowledge of the issue. In 2001, Pro Bowl offensive tackle Korey Stringer of the Minnesota Vikings died of heatstroke at a practice. In 2003, Orioles reliever Steve Bechler died of heatstroke after taking ephedra-based diet pills. Last year, Missouri player Aaron O'Neal died during a preseason workout.

"I can look back to when I was in high school, and education has increased exponentially, helped along by some unfortunate deaths," said Bill Waibel, coach of Joppatowne High School. "People are more cognizant of it."

Ken Zorba, supervisor of athletics in Harford County, oversees nine schools, all of which have trainers and have a plan of preventing heat-related illnesses.

That doesn't mean that the schools' coaches weren't going to get additional information on the subject at a preseason meeting for Upper Chesapeake Bay Athletic Conference schools scheduled for last night at Havre de Grace.

"For the most part, they're veterans," Zorba said last week. "And the new coaches, they're in a care and prevention course that covers the issue, so they'll get a double dose of that at the meeting."

Teams have tried to beat the heat by adjusting practice times according to the weather; many squads include one early morning practice during this week's two-a-days.

At Forest Park, coach Obie Barnes said that his team might have to share the gym with the volleyball team if it gets too hot, a change from the old days.

"I remember one year when The Sun came out to one of our practices, and it was 103 degrees," said Barnes, the school's coach for 30 years. "We can't be liable for that anymore."

Frequent water breaks - as many as five per hour during practices - also factor heavily in preventing heat illnesses, as does Gatorade, which has supplied schools with discounts on powder packets, coolers and bottles in recent years.

Wilde Lake coach Doug DuVall recognizes that the help from Gatorade amounts to an advertisement for the company, but its value in restoring electrolytes and potassium is the overriding concern.

"They want to get it in front of the kids so they can sell it," DuVall said, "but the truth is that it's actually saving kids' lives."

While coaches are taking the message of hydration to heart, they're also passing it along to the players, urging them to prepare more thoroughly for practice and to sit out when the heat is producing adverse effects.

Before the practices started at Archbishop Spalding last week, coach Mike Whittles told his players as much at a meet-and-greet event between coaches and parents.

"We're not in their bodies," Whittles said. "We don't know if you're dizzy. You have to listen to your body. It's best to slow down than fall down."

The conditioning of players before fall camp starts can be a factor, and in a lot of cases, players are increasing their participation in group weight training and running during the summer.

Alaoui is going through this for the third straight summer, and not only has he seen the benefits for himself, but also the costs for those who don't do the same.

"It's about 25 percent who don't show up," he said. "And those who roll in on the first day, you can tell."

Brad Wilson, Westminster's coach, expects his returning players to have done some conditioning during the summer, but wouldn't be surprised if the team needs some fine-tuning during the first few days.

Because of the nature of his team's offense - plenty of passing - Wilson is less dependent on heavy contact. So he's willing to take a day off if it gets too hot.

"I'm not there to get the kids in shape in two or three days," said Wilson, whose team will start practices today at 7 a.m. "As long as they're ready by the first game. If we don't get it in on the first day, we'll get it in on the second day."

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