The advantage of an artificial turf on any high school campus is its durability. You don’t need to mow it, treat it, or even water it.

Many Sacramento-area high school football teams have artificial pitches, but when it starts to sizzle, grill and bake, that same convenient turf emits heat like so many green solar panels. Sometimes it takes a watering session to cool things down a bit as the heat tends to intensify a practice. If not handled properly, heat can also tarnish a practice.

Training began on Monday for the preparatory football teams of the Sac-Joaquin section. The sessions were conducted without helmets or pads, although all of that is coming soon, as is the intense heat. How the coaches handle adapting their rosters — freshmen, college juniors and college students — to the conditions is the first challenge of a season that’s expected to have plenty of trouble.

Most programs in the region practice in the late afternoon, to better align with after-school practices when the school year begins. Some go in the morning, to beat the heat, pointing out that the crisp air at the start adds spice to the sessions. Or, if you’re Antelope Reggie Harris’ trainer, you go early to form habits.

“We come out here at 4:45 a.m., and that way no one can make excuses: no doctor’s appointment, no dentist’s appointment,” Harris said. “Tell me what you have to do so soon to miss practice. It initiates accountability. It also means that a child can’t be up all night, or on the phone all night, if they expect to be up early and in practice, where we expect a lot. We still run them pretty hard in the morning and will get used to the heat pretty quickly. We’ll take care of it.

At this point, coaches are conditioned to expect anything. They were able to navigate and maneuver through a myriad of challenges with COVID-19 during the Spring 2021 season which included an exhaustive amount of testing, spaced out drills, practices and canceled games. Last fall, it started to feel normal again. In recent years, coaches and athletes have also had to deal with smoky skies at the start of the season due to wildfires. Dealing with the heat is a breeze because heat is a given.

Change of hours

The days of running guys through the ground with water nowhere in sight like a self-imposed drought are long gone. The two-day practices are horror stories of the past. At that time, it was a test of manhood – How tough are you, son? — not having any water. Liquid was a sign of weakness.

Common sense took over when the obvious became the gospel: a hydrated athlete is a much healthier and more successful athlete. Football is hard enough trying to put together a team or get into the rotation of play, let alone ward off the guys trying to hit you next week. To better support all this: Water.

“As coaches, we walk the fine line of building toughness and doing it the smart way,” Pleasant Grove coach Josh Crabtree said. “Something we used to say when I coached at American River College was, ‘Your brain will leave you before the body does.’ So putting the kids in a stressful situation before playing under the Friday night lights in front of thousands of people are good reps, including hot workouts We’ve all outgrown the idea that if you can walk, you can practice. Over the years I’ve seen kids ostracized because of the heat, and that scares you. It’s not about being tough. It’s about educating kids, to do it correctly and intelligently.

Not too far away in the same Elk Grove Unified School District, Monterey Trail coach TJ Ewing will turn on the sprinklers to soothe his athletes if temperatures top 100. The coach said it was a feeling of ” Waterworld”. He also pointed out that coaches haven’t gotten softer over time, just smarter.

And just down Calvine Road from Monterey Trail is Sheldon, practices end with the joy of a cooler full of Otter Pops, the tasty popsicles. There is no lack of motivation to put an end to these practices.

“Are they part of the package? They are the package! Sheldon’s trainer Chris Nixon said. “Good hydration, lots of breaks, water cannons that shoot the pitch and the piece de resistance: Otter Pops!”

Nixon said coaches young and old invite the high heat this time of year. Managing the elements could mean managing a season, or at least the fourth quarter where the mighty are left standing. Managing the heat is a challenge in itself, and it can make or break teams. Teams fit or die.

“We’re actually a little sad when the temps hover around 80 because we’re not sure (my wife Tina) will get the Otter Pop cooler out,” Nixon said.

In Loomis, Placer County, Del Oro coach Mike Maben isn’t just dealing with the heat, he’s dressing the role to meet it head-on. Not with shorts, a tank top and flip flops. Football practice is not a day on the beach.

No, the coach who played sports at Del Oro arrives to train in long pants, long sleeves, and sometimes with a hoodie. Sweat is his mantra. Don’t stay downwind of sweat after the workout is over.

“I’ve done this every day since I did this, and part of it is my wrestling background,” Maben said of her attire. “People look at me like I’m crazy, but we also have to worry as coaches about too much sun exposure. So wear sleeves. I have coaches on my team who struggle with melanoma .

Water here, there, everywhere

Area trainers require regular water breaks. It’s part of the practice just as much as it wasn’t part of the practice. Programs have water stations, dozens of bottles of water, and some have buckets with cold towels. Coaches ask their team captains to watch each other. If someone looks too upset, say something.

Coaches are required by the governing body of the California Interscholastic Federation to take heat education classes. The region’s coaches also insist on good nutrition: avoid drive-thrus, avoid sodas and energy drinks. And water. Drink it regularly, coaches insist. Nothing is better for the body than this natural resource.

“Hydrated athletes are much happier athletes and they pay attention,” Maben said.

In El Dorado Hills, Oak Ridge coach Casey Taylor recalls playing football for school in the 1980s when water was just a rumor. Approaching the water was then a quick way to incur the wrath of a trainer.

“We have come a long way; we have tons of water and so much money is spent on hydration that you can’t not have water everywhere,” Taylor said. “When I was playing here, I remember rinsing my mouth out with water, if we were lucky. I once got caught drinking water from a mosquito-infested sprinkler I had to do bear ramps all over the place. But that was how it was back then.”

Oak Ridge running back/linebacker Jake Hall said another focus was on rest. Oak Ridge hosts early morning weightlifting sessions and later afternoon soccer practices. He said the players are also watching each other. This is a team adventure, not a hazing deal to see who gets the hang of it first.

“After the weights we go home, rest, drink half a gallon of water, eat a good foot, rest, because if you don’t you instantly feel it in later workouts,” Hall said. “We are also keeping an eye out for anyone who is feeling unwell, a blow or a heat, anyone with a limp. You don’t want to be that guy who sits down to a drill, but it’s not worth trying to do.

Said Crabtree of Pleasant Grove, “These kids grew up together, went to school together, and they can sense when something is wrong with one of their friends. If you spot something in a teammate, say something. It saves them from missing a week, and we all win. The child is safe and the team is whole.

Joe Davidson has covered sports for The Sacramento Bee since 1988: preps, colleges, Kings and feature films. He is a 14-time winner of the California Prep Sports Writer Association. In 2021, he received the CIF Distinguished Service award. He is a member of the California Coaches Association Hall of Fame. Davidson competed in football and track and field in Oregon, his legend never growing.

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