WPIAL football coaches speak out about heat acclimation process

Chris Harlan
| Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013, 9:51 p.m.

Thomas Jefferson coach Bill Cherpak cut short his vacation in balmy Florida for a few days of rather seasonable heat acclimation here at home.

He came north a early so his Jaguars could fulfill a new PIAA mandate that requires high school football players to complete three days of heat acclimation before they start practice.

“This has thrown our whole schedule into a tizzy,” Cherpak said. “Usually the kids have this time off.”

Like Thomas Jefferson, many schools used this past week to fulfill the mandate, though some won't hold their required program until Monday, when camps open around the WPIAL and City League.

The acclimation requirement was written to safeguard players from serious heat-related ailments, but the added regulation was not warmly welcomed by coaches who consider it unnecessary after weeks of summer workouts.

“What do they think we've been doing all summer?” Cherpak said.

Most football programs in Western Pennsylvania organize voluntary team conditioning sessions in the summer. This was the third year that athletes could wear helmets and shoulder pads during those optional workouts.

“Obviously we're working out in the summer, so I don't know how much more heat acclimation you can do,” said Central Valley coach Mark Lyons, a former president of the Pennsylvania Scholastic Football Coaches Association.

“I think it's more of a cover for the state. What bothers me is that they don't give us enough accountability as coaches. Nobody who's a head football coach would do anything to jeopardize a kid or his health.”

The National Federation of State High School Associations made heat acclimation a trending topic last year with an educational campaign that included a course on exertional heat stroke.That temperature-related ailment has been the leading cause of preventable death among high school athletes, according to the NFHS.

Exertional heat stroke has killed 41 high school football players since 1995, according to NFHS statistics, and most heat-related deaths occurred during the first few days of practice. With that in mind, the PIAA board of control voted in March to require a mandatory heat acclimation period this season.

“We've been told by our sports medicine experts that heat-related deaths are preventable,” PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi said. “Having that helmet and equipment on is like putting the body in an incubator.”

The acclimation process — which applies only to football — requires three consecutive days of outdoor activity starting no earlier than last Wednesday.

Each coach was tasked with submitting an acclimation plan to the school's principal for approval.

Under the PIAA rule, players are allowed to wear helmets and shoulder pads on the first two days but contact is prohibited. Full equipment can be worn on the third day. Contact is allowed Monday for teams that acclimated last week. Those acclimating this week must wait to hit until Wednesday.

No acclimation session can last longer than three hours, and a two-hour recovery period is required between sessions. No team can practice more than five hours total on any heat acclimation day, but all teams must practice at least three hours.

Lombardi dismisses coaches who insist that summer conditioning makes this procedure needless.

“That cracks me up,” he said, “because those sessions run all summer are not mandatory or compulsory. ... I don't think coaches are telling us that they're having out-of-season practice, do you?”

Some teams have approached the early practices as a bonus. Valley was treating the program as an extended minicamp before traveling to Slippery Rock for traditional camp.

“The kids would have been around anyways with conditioning, but with this being mandatory, they have to be here, which is good,” Valley coach Chad Walsh said. “It's good to get them in pads before we go to camp, although they've been doing that for a while.”

Penn-Trafford scheduled its heat days for this weekend but was told by the PIAA that it was in violation of the state's six-day practice week. So the Warriors postponed their acclimation period until Monday.

With almost a dozen players away on vacation, Greensburg Central Catholic also chose to wait until Monday to begin its sessions. But that leaves the Centurions a short week to prepare for Saturday's scrimmage with Derry.

“For the first year of this, I wasn't going to ask them to change their vacation plans,” GCC coach Dan Mahoney said. “We're not real deep, so I didn't see how it was going to hurt us anyway. We'll find out Saturday.”

Besides the inconvenience, some have questioned the logic behind the acclimation rule, especially on days like Thursday, when temperatures never escaped the 70s. Thomas Jefferson scheduled its three-hour workouts to begin at 9 a.m.

“I just don't know if (the guideline) was thought out enough,” Cherpak said. “What if it's rainy and 65 degrees at nine in the morning?”

Bill Beckner and Doug Gulasy contributed. Chris Harlan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at charlan@tribweb.com or via Twitter @CHarlan_Trib.

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