The PIAA's new mandatory heat acclimation program has some area high school football coaches all hot and bothered.
"I'm not in favor of this," Philipsburg-Osceola coach Jeff Vroman said during Mountain League media day last week. "I don't think it's fixed anything."
"I don't know the reasons for implementing it. I just know we have to do it, and we're trying to follow it the best we can," Portage coach Gary Gouse added. "Anytime you try something new, you have to work out the wrinkles. It's tough on the kids right now. The ones that are missing and have family vacations are the toughest."
Heat acclimatization - as it is referred to under the PIAA rule - is nothing new. Most programs implemented some version of it, whether it was called conditioning or heat acclimation.
However, because it was done before official practice began, it only was voluntary. The PIAA, citing that 41 high school players have died from heat-related causes since 1995, decided to step in this year and make sure every team - and, more importantly, every player, had to get warmed up, so to speak, with three straight days of at least three-hour practice/conditioning sessions before they could take part in a an actual hitting practice, scrimmage or game. That had to be done no more than two days before the opening of the PIAA season on Monday.
Teams had the option of starting as early as Wednesday of this week or holding off until next week, when the preseason technically begins. Because most coaches don't want to lose three days of practice, the vast majority if not all teams are wrapping up their acclimatization programs today.
The heat is on
Here are some of the guidelines of the PIAA's new heat-acclimatization rule to try to lessen heat-related illnesses during football practice:
n Teams must condition for three consecutive days no more than two days before the first practice. This may be completed the week before the first practice date.
n Practice sessions are a minimum of three hours or a maximum of five hours with at least a two-hour rest period.
n Helmets and shoulder pads are to be worn the first two days but contact is not allowed.
n To practice, play in a game or scrimmage, a player must complete heat acclimatization.
"I think everybody's trying to make the game safer. I think everybody has different opinions on how to do it," Cambria Heights coach Jarrod Lewis said. "If this prevents some of these heat illnesses, it's worth it."
That's something that coaches agree on. However, not everyone is happy with how it's been put into place.
"It's pretty vague what you can do and what you can't do," Gouse said. "They didn't spend enough time explain to the coaches and everybody ... the plan is up to us."
That plan has to be OK'd with the school's principle, athletic director and trainer. All the coaches to whom the Mirror talked just were using variations of their typical practices, although no skin-to-skin contact between players or tackling to the ground are allowed.
Inconsistencies in what teams were doing on the field was one major concern. The other was the timing. The PIAA guidelines stress that there only be two days off from the last heat acclimatization session and the first practice to have its intended medical effect of getting players prepared for lengthy, multi-session practices in the typically brutally-hot August days. However, that also coincides with the last real getaway weekend for families of players before the fall practices and the start of school.
By rule, if players don't complete the three days in a row this week, they have to do it next week.
"I don't like the fact that if you don't do it three days in a row, it starts Monday for you," Huntingdon coach Mike Hudy said. "That means your first contact day is Thursday. You scrimmage Saturday with one day of contact if you make Friday a walk-through. I think that's a problem."
"I can't imagine anybody waiting until the first week [of practice] to start that, because you're in conflict there where they want you to spend a lot of time on technique, tackling, to prevent injuries in that sense, but, at the same time, if you're not doing something with pads on, you're not playing football," Bellwood-Antis coach John Hayes said.
"If you can get all your people there the 7th, then you are fine. What if you're a district that can't get it accomplished? It doesn't appear to be a level thing. As a second-year coach, I need to rewrite everything," Hudy added.
The likelihood of having the entire squad present is slim to none. That means some players will need to go about heat acclimatization while those that already completed it will be preparing for the first scrimmage.
"You're going to almost have two practices going at the same time," Lewis said.
Teams will have to divide their staffs or use their trainers to supervise the players who didn't complete the heat acclimation earlier.
"We're probably all going to go through some challenges where we have some kids who may have vacations scheduled, and they're going to have to go through it the following week," Northern Bedford coach Batzel said. "I had one kid who said, 'I'll be getting back Friday, and I can do it Monday and Tuesday.' No, it's got to be three consecutive days."
Batzel, like most of the other coaches, already had a similar program in place. The PIAA rules, though, have forced some alterations that might seem the opposite of what was intended.
"We are going to end up going longer on Friday then we would have anyhow," Guthoff said. "If the intent was to reduce it, now they are going to make us practice on a Friday for three hours where we would have been out there with no helmets and shoulder pads and gone for an hour and a half."
Gouse gave his team off the entire week before the first practice, conditioning earlier. Vroman had his team working along the same lines.
"We were doing a full five-day heat acclimation. Now they're cutting it to three days in helmets and shoulder pads," Vroman said. "If they want to help us out, I think we need to extend our preseason and make it three weeks with two scrimmages and give the kids a day off here and there. Once you get into your double-session times, get all of your special teams in, you're always short on time, especially when a lot of schools have in-service days that second week. I think that's what we need to look at."
There is at least one universal upside.
"I'm actually pleased for this reason: It's mandatory. We have been doing for as long as I can remember what we called heat acclimation, but we couldn't make it mandatory, because it was before the season," Hayes said. "You'd get some of this nice group to come today, and some of those guys wouldn't come tomorrow. Different ones would come tomorrow, and some would or wouldn't come on Friday."
Last year, Bellwood used a system in which conditioning wasn't mandatory, but, if a player missed it, he had to do it the first three days of practice and couldn't scrimmage.
"We had everybody here but one kid. They were away on vacation, and it was already planned," Hayes said.
Coaches said the PIAA put the heat acclimatization rule in place in an effort to get ahead of potential problems or other groups forcing their own rules upon them, and the state coaches association had input. It's seen as a work in progress but was just a way of getting things started. The kinks will be worked out, eventually.
"It's a new thing for everyone," Gouse said, "and we're all trying to feel our way through it."