High School Sports

How high school football teams fight heat: Otter Pops and blocking sled ‘water world’

When it starts to bake this time of year, football practice on a field turf can just about melt cleats.

And sap energy and morale.

The synthetic turf high school programs use across the region pay off in rainy weather – no mud – but heat radiates off the ground like green solar panels in August. It can feel like working out on the surface of the sun.

Coaches are mindful of keeping their athletes hydrated, of keeping them upright and alive, really, as season openers loom on Aug. 23. Nothing dulls the mood of a practice more than a collapsed player battling heat exhaustion.

High school programs don’t have the luxury of practicing before school in cooler temperatures, or, often, at night due to facility access and lighting needs.

Teams must work wisely. Coaches are put through mandated heat-illness prevention courses, just as they are for concussions, cardiac issues and CPR and first-aid sessions. Coaches remind their students to hydrate throughout the day, to treat their bodies as well as they do their cars or their beloved cellphones and iPads.

Common sense when it’s 105

A lot of it boils down to common sense: stay as cool as you can to combat heat. Such concerns are not new in the Central Valley, where searing temperatures are the norm. The forecast in Sacramento calls for 105 degrees Wednesday, 107 on Thursday and 103 on Friday.

Some coaches add an element of fun amid drills while generally reducing or canceling tackling sessions.

At Sheldon within the Elk Grove Unified School District, practice drills end with the promise of frozen popsicles – Otter Pops. The savory treats are from a team mom in Tina Nixon, the most appreciated person on the field and the wife of Huskies offensive coordinator Chris Nixon.

“This,” said head coach Dave Filan eyeing the icy goods, “is the way to go.”

At nearby Monterey Trail on Tuesday, coach T.J. Ewing makes sure the field’s sprinkler system working throughout drills. Yes, a sprinkler system for fake grass is used to cool the place down. Players relished the chance to run routes under the welcomed sheets of water.

“We’ll hit the sled with the big sprinkler going on, and the kids love it, coaches, too,” Ewing said. “It’s like ‘Water World’ out here.”

Years ago, coaches wanted a Sahara Desert look and feel for practice in an effort to make men out of their lads, to toughen them up. Decades ago, water was a rumor, a myth, a precious reserve only allowed after three-hour boot-camp practices.

“That’s all the coaches knew back then,” Ewing said. “Some think we’re getting soft as coaches now. No. We’ve all gotten smarter.”

The common sense view: a hydrated athlete is a better peforming one.

Water as a performance enhancer

Area coaches make sure that water is available by the bottle, the jug, the 55-gallon barrel, the water horses or sprinklers. Whatever it takes.

Coaches don’t frown on water. They encourage it.

“The days of running kids into the ground in the heat and holding them hostage from the water horses are long over, and obviously for the better,” Rio Linda coach Jack Garceau said.

“Our kids know they have the freedom to get water whenever needed. We also closely monitor not only our big guys but also the kids we know don’t always have access to meals. That’s always a big factor.”

Coaches said they invited mandatory tutorials to educate themselves on heat-related safety.

“The CIF requires all interested individuals to go through a heat-education course before they can become certified high school coaches,” said Will DeBoard, the assistant commissioner of the Sac-Joaquin Section. “This is a newer development over the last few years. Our coaches are the ones on the proverbial front lines with high school student-athletes, and it’s important they know what to do when it gets hot.”

Area teams will compete in full-tackle, game-like scrimmages on Friday and Saturday, when the action tends to meet the temperatures.

Referees will look for athletes who are holding and for those who may be weakening from the heat. Local referee Dan Dean said he and peers suggest that athletes, “drink water the night before. Drink until your pee is clear. If you wait until you’re thirsty to drink, it’s too late.

“When the players cramp up, we ask our flanks to send water to them.”

Coaches also remind their students to eat and drink wisely.

Water all day, every day

For programs such as Bear River in the foothills player depth is always a concern. The Bruins have 23 varsity players, so everyone is active in every drill.

“We tell the kids that they have to drink water all day – not soda, and sure as hell not those energy drinks,” Bear River co-head coach Terry Logue said. “You’re packing extra equipment when you’re out there and it’s over 100 degrees, so we’ve got to be super careful.

“In the old days, you had to prove how tough you were, but that wasn’t smart at all. We’re smarter now about this.”

At Inderkum in the Natomas region, Tigers players worked out in recent weeks on dirt and grass as the school’s synthetic turf was replaced.

Monday was the program’s first practice on the new digs, and it sizzled.

“That took some getting used to,” Inderkum coach Terry Stark said. “Our kids have water whenever they need. We push our kids hard, and we make sure they get water. We take care of them.”

Stark wonders how he and teammates survived their prep days. He played in an old-school era, at Mira Loma in the 1970s when taskmaster coaches Don Brown and Gerry Kundert forbid water during drills while piling up championship seasons.

“Our big thing was every once and awhile, a sprinkler would come on at practice, and we’d try to run by and get a few drops,” Stark said.

Also in the late 1970s, Dave Hoskins earned a reputation as a water tyrant at Valley. Now an assistant at Capital Christian, in his 53rd year of coaching area ball, Hoskins makes sure his linemen get plenty of water.

Old school really is old school, and only the old war stories remain. Players roll their eyes at the horror stories.

“Hoskins was the water Nazi,” said Nixon, the Sheldon assistant coach, whose quarterback son Sean cannot fathom such inhumane situations. “His players outsmarted him, though. They knew if the sprinklers came on the night before, they’d be able to drink from water that collected on the rusty sled.”

Nixon’s father, Marshall, was his coach at Nevada Union in the early 1980s. He, too, frowned on water.

“My dad was just like Hoskins back when water was bad,” Nixon said. “But we had it easier up in the mountains. We could just throw a football into the forest to chase it down and drink from the creek.”

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Joe Davidson has covered sports for The Sacramento Bee since 1988 and is award-winning authority on high school sports, specializing in going behind the scenes. Davidson was a high school athlete in Oregon, where he participated in football and track.