High school football teams play it safe in oppressive heat

Thirty minutes before Winnetonka played hosted to Liberty on Friday night in its season opener at North Kansas City High School, two-thirds of the visitors section continued to bake in the late-August sun.

The early-arriving Blue Jays fans wisely congregated in the shaded portion of the bleachers, seeking relief from the 100-degree heat as they awaited the 8:05 p.m. kickoff.

The hottest Friday of the year greeted opening night of Missouri high school football, prompting at least 23 schools to alter kickoff times Friday night or Saturday in an effort to dodge the heat.

“Probably 10 or 15 years ago, all these games wouldn’t have been moved. But we’re more aware some heat issues now, and we certainly don’t want any bad things to happen to kids,” Winnetonka athletic director Jeff Rich said. “We’d rather be too cautious than not enough.”

That was the general sentiment throughout the metro area about how to handle the heat — don’t take unnecessary risks.

“Everyone’s going to be cautious when it comes to the kids,” Kearney athletic director Eric Marshall said. “The last thing we want is a kid to fall over from heat exhaustion.”

By kickoff at North Kansas City’s district stadium, the temperature had only dropped two degrees. It was still a robust 98 degrees, which is in the danger zone based on Missouri State High School Activities Association guidelines.

Of course, preparation for the heat didn’t start Friday. It was a weeklong process to get ready for the 60-minute slog.

“We started talking about it on Saturday or Sunday of last week,” said Liberty coach Chad Frigon, whose Blue Jays roughed up Winnetonka 35-0. “All the guys in weight-training class, we had them chugging water daily, so they were keeping it up before practice and after practice.”

In addition to the extra fluids, Frigon adjusted practice to accommodate the heat, but the players still had to work in conditions similar to what they faced Friday night as temps continued to drop in the evening.

“We adjusted practices a little bit,” he said. “We went through the same routine, but did some without gear on. I feel like we prepared well throughout the week.”

For the players, it was another football game.

“Obviously, it was hot, but I don’t feel like we wore down more than usual,” said running back David Graves, who rushed for 142 yards and two touchdowns. “The defense getting those three-and-outs was big for us, getting the offense back on the field so we could control the tempo. That helped and eventually everything clicked in place for the offense.”

The hour delay might not have changed much as far as temperature at game time. But with the sun having set conditions became more comfortable — for players and fans alike.

“This wasn’t as big of a priority 10 years ago, but we’ve seen a lot of studies on heat stroke and heat-related illness,” said Jason West, the communications director for the association. “There’s an emphasis being put on those and on acclimatization. There’s been a real change in how these situations are handled. Now that people are educated, people are taking precautions and that’s a positive step for the kids.”

It’s a far cry from the years when two-a-days were common, and coaches often refused to grant water breaks in an effort to toughen up the team.

So, is that a bad thing?

Winnetonka coach Sterling Edwards’ father-in-law, Ron Sapp, remembers those days and he’s glad to see times changing.

“These guys are bigger and a lot more padded,” Ron said. “There’s a big difference in the game. You look at the field. We played on dirt and this has asphalt underneath it that’s been hot all day. There’s so many things that make it different from back when I graduated in 1958.”

Sapp’s wife, Belinda, was especially happy for the one-hour postponement.

“That made a big difference to me,” she said. “We still would have been out here early.”

“I’m the early guy wherever we go,” Ron chimed in.

“We wouldn’t have stayed away, but I’m glad they moved it,” Belinda said.

Belinda’s reaction seemed to be the norm.

“We didn’t get any complaints,” Rich said. “The only comments we got were positive, saying they think it’s a good idea.”

Of course, not every school chose to alter its game time.

Platte County’s home game against William Chrisman started as scheduled at 7 p.m., but Pirates athletic director Phil Dorman said his staff had been monitoring the situation throughout the week.

“We didn’t feel that when one school did it we needed to follow suit,” Dorman said. “We were going to wait until closer to game time to make that decision. We’re treating it like we would a lightning delay. If we get to 15 minutes before game time and feel the need to postpone it, then we’re going to do that.”

Activities association rules require a water break midway through every quarter during the first three games each season, but Platte County and other schools were planning extra water breaks as needed at the referee’s discretion.