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High school football coaches put premium on safety of their players

| Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014, 10:03 p.m.
Erica Dietz | Trib Total Media
Freeport High School's Dylan Hochbein keeps focused during a heat acclimitaztion workout Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014, at Freeport High School.
Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
North Catholic senior P.J. Fulmore (left) works out with his Trojans teammates Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014, in Cranberry.
Celeste Van Kirk | Trib Total Media
Connellsville's Dylan Knopsnider turns up field after making a catch during a heat acclimatization practice session on Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014, at Connellsville Stadium.
Ronald Vezzani | Trib Total Media
Clairotn's James Hines works on pass catching skills during a heat acclimitization workout Wednesday, August 6, 2014, at Clairton.

While one local team deals with tragedy, the PIAA and area football coaches are still hard at work with player safety as the top priority.

Most football teams around Western Pennsylvania are in the process this week of completing their state-mandated heat acclimation days, while at the same time, the death of Burrell sophomore Noah Cornuet on Wednesday has caused many to reexamine player safety precautions.

A medical examiner confirmed Thursday that the death of Cornuet — who collapsed during stretching at the start of Burrell's practice — was caused by a tumor on his heart's atrial septum and not related to any exertion caused by playing football.

But even with football-related activities not being named as a cause in Cornuet's death, area coaches have made it clear to their players that all safety procedures will be followed closely during their preseason workouts.

“We always err on the side of caution,” Washington coach Mike Bosnic said. “You're trying to build them up to put full pads on and be able to practice. Every day, you're trying to get them in better shape and more conditioned.”

The PIAA's heat acclimation policy mandates three consecutive days of outdoor workouts up to three hours in length. Helmets and shoulder pads are worn the first two days, and full pads may be worn the third day. No contact is allowed during the three-day period, and no player may participate in contact drills until completing the three days.

“The whole object is to be careful and ease kids into it. We're out there for three days in helmets and shoulder pads, but it's all for safety,” Highlands coach Sam Albert said.

Other summer workouts are voluntary by rule, so many coaches use the three-day period as a chance to start mandatory practices early, even if hitting is prohibited.

The most important part for teams is preparing players to go live when camp begins Monday, but many coaches have found different uses from a football standpoint.

“It must be noncontact drills, so basically we do a lot of agility work, passing, catching and all of the special teams. I think it works pretty well for us,” Thomas Jefferson coach Bill Cherpak said.

Bethel Park coach Jeff Metheny added: “It's scaled-down in length, but I think everybody does what they're accustomed to, which is lifting, running and on-the-field work.”

Some coaches, such as Franklin Regional's Greg Botta, have their own fitness requirements above the three-day period before camp begins. Botta attaches a simple goal — a 300-yard run with target times based on position — for players to reach.

“They have to do it under a certain time. If they don't pass, they come back two days later and try again,” Botta said. “The reason for the test is to see if the player had done what he was supposed to during the summer. I had 16 who didn't pass the first day. That was down to six on the second try.”

Another change is the style of conditioning work that some coaches have their team undergo.

While many teams wrap up practice with running — width-of-the-field sprints affectionately known as “gassers” are a mainstay — others have borrowed from a coaching method more akin to basketball and soccer, in which players are kept in motion throughout practices.

“We don't do a lot of conditioning. We set up the drills so the kids get their conditioning during practice,” Kittanning coach Frank Fabian said. “We want to get our running in during the practice, not set aside time for it.”

“We're constantly in motion,” Freeport coach John Gaillot said. “There are short bursts of speed, and we try to have water breaks every five to eight minutes.”

No matter the method, protecting players' health is the first and foremost concern of coaches.

While a tumor such as the one that led to Cornuet's death would have needed to be detected by a medical professional, the consensus among coaches is that they will do whatever it takes to avoid preventable tragedies.

“It makes sense that anything we can do to make safety the No. 1 consideration, everybody's in,” Seneca Valley coach Don Holl said. “All of my coaching colleagues and everyone I know in football agrees. Whatever you can do and everything you do, you've got to do it.”

Staff writers Andrew Erickson, Ray Fisher, Doug Gulasy, Paul Schofield and Bill Beckner Jr. contributed. Matt Grubba is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at mgrubba@tribweb.com.

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