Rain, rain go away

The wettest fall played havoc with area high school football schedules
By Cody Wilcox

Special to County Sports Zone

Coming off a 45-0 victory over Centennial High School the previous Friday, Wilde Lake Head Coach Michael Harrison awoke the ensuing Tuesday to expectations of his team's 3 p.m. practice to be cancelled due to pouring rain.

Later that day, Harrison, who took over as head coach in 2008, was engaging in a productive practice on his team's practice fields.

"We got lucky today that [the weather] cooperated," Harrison said. "It's a little cloudy right now, but the sun is shining and we are getting some good work in."

Two weeks prior, the weather gave Harrison's team another test during their home opener against Reservoir High School. Going into halftime, Wilde Lake led 7-0. After making halftime adjustments, both teams returned to the field and began stretchingonly to be sent back to the locker rooms due to presence of lightning in the area.

Schools follow the National Federation State High School Guidelines that recommends a 30-minute delay following any sign of lightning or thunder. The NFHS' recommendation comes from the average rate of thunderstorm travel, which allows the storm to travel 10 to 12 miles away from the area and reduce the risk. During this time, fans and student athletes are asked to exit the field and grandstands while referees and athletic directors observe the weather and reset the 30-minute suspension for each strike of lightning.

"We immediately went back inside. Put [the kids] all back on the fluids, because we thought, 'Hey, we might wait a half an hour and come back out,'" Harrison said. "Well, as it turned out, that cycle just kept going. There would be another crack of lightning or thunder, and we'd have to start the clock over on the half-an-hour waiting period."

Harrison said that he and Reservoir Coach Bryan Cole eventually went out to talk to their athletic directors to make a decision on the continuation of the game. Wilde Lake Athletic Director Kareem Penn and Reservoir Athletic Director Josh Sullivan, along with the head coaches, called Howard County Athletic Coordinator John Davis to inform them of their situation, and they decided the would reschedule the game if they had one more weather day. And that's what happened.

However, their plan had another hiccup as a county-wide soccer tournament hosted by Elite Tournaments occupied the available fields during Labor Day weekend; causing the second half of the Wilde Lake vs. Reservoir game to be resumed three days later on Labor Day.

"The nice thing was that you got to review the tape a little bit, because you have half-a-tape to watch. But it's not like we had practice to change anything," Harrison said. "We were able to talk to some kids to say, 'Hey, we need to make this adjustment or that adjustment.' But I am sure Coach Cole did the same thing with his guys. It was an interesting situation to say the least."

Wilde Lake would go on to score 20 unanswered points on Labor Day and beat Reservoir, 27-0, for its first win of the season.

The battle with the weather was a common issue with high school coaches and athletic directors in Maryland this past football season.

Across Frederick, Montgomery, Prince George's, Howard and Anne Arundel counties, nine football games were cancelled, 15 games were suspended and two were called midway through the second quarter during the first week of competition. The second week was even worse, accumulating 27 football games to be rescheduled and three to be postponed.

"In the last couple years, we haven't had a week or so of rain like we had this year," said Frederick County Athletics and extracurricular Activities Supervisor Kevin Kendro.

Anne Arundel County Athletic Coordinator Clayton Culp agreed.

"I've been in my role for four years. This is certainly the wettest stretch in the fall," Culp said. "We've had things [similar] every season, but in terms of stretch of weeks in the fall that were really impacted by rain, I would say in my time here, that was the most trying for sure."

According to the National Weather Service, areas surrounding Dulles International Airport experienced the wettest summer since 1972 with 22.61 inches. September, alone, produced 7.36 inches of precipitation, making it the eighth wettest on record and wettest September since 2011, which produced 7.93 inches.

With such a record-setting amount of rain, the decisions made by athletic directors had a ripple effect on others within the community. Bus drivers, volunteers and parents were asked to change their schedules in order to benefit the student athletes.

"We made the best of the situation that we could," Kendro said. "Everyone really worked well together to make it the best experience possible for our student athletes."

During the rescheduling process, athletic directors are not only in charge of prioritizing student safety but balancing the availability of their school fields. Typically, various sports will share a common field and make rescheduling difficult for the coaches and athletic directors.

"You may have to move one sport to accommodate another," said Culp.

Unlike field hockey and soccer teams, that can play multiple games during the week, football teams are only allowed to play one game per week. Safety, being the main motive, causes most Friday night football games to be rescheduled or postponed to the following Saturday. However, Prince George's County Director of Interscholastic Athletics Earl Hawkins says that the MPSSA guidelines allow for one additional football game to be rescheduled for the ensuing Monday, if the game was not able to be completed on Saturday.

The recovery time needed for soccer and field hockey is much shorter than what is necessary for football. Thus, soccer and field hockey games may be postponed a day or two in order to give the football teams priority of the fields and allow the student athletes to get their essential three to four days of recovery time.

"We want at least three-to-four days -- really four days in between games, for football especially," Hawkins said. "With football, you really only want to play one [game] a week, if you can help it -- just so players have time to recover and play for the next week."

During the second week of Howard County games, the problematic weather returned, and Davis said the county was prepared and had a good plan in place if the games were to be postponed.

"We made a decision [Friday night] -- it was getting really bad, and the wait time was getting pretty long as far as getting the lightning and thunder out of the area. So we ended up going Saturday with all those games," Davis said. "It worked out, we had a little bit better plan for that week and it worked out pretty good."

Jean Shea, Recreational Supervisor for Howard County Park and Rec, said that when it rains, the Howard County Board of Education and Howard County Parks have to close their grass fields, limiting their options to only turf fields.

Other counties, such as Anne Arundel, have the luxury possessing at least one turf field at every high school. Turf fields, unlike grass, allow you to play games in the rain due to their toughness and ability to drain quickly without concern of overuse.

In Anne Arundel County "some high schools have one turf field, some have multiple turf fields," Culp said. "So you can get games in when sometimes others might not be able to."

In the past, Culp says that the abundance of turf fields in Anne Arundel has allowed neutral-sited games to be played if there was no available space for teams to play at their respective schools, but did not have to resort to this in September.

When teams aren't playing, they have a limited amount of time to prepare for their next opponent. During that time, coaches have to mentally and physically prepare their players and implement a game plan for their upcoming game while at the mercy of the weather.

Unless thunder or lightning intervenes, teams will usually practice outside in harsh conditions such as rain or snow. Head coaches are forced to make adjustments upon these conditions, while getting the most out of their practice session. During this time, Harrison says that patience and flexibility is key for any head coach.

"We always, in the offseason, have a contingency plan for the weather," Harrison said. "We do a lot of film work and chalkboard work. We'll get an extra lift in so that they have had some kind of physical activity, if it's a day that we can't get outside because it is thundering and lightning. We may even try to get somewhere in a hallway where we can do some walk-through kind of things."

Then there are other times in which teams are able to get four practices in fairly nice conditions just to meet a wave of rain on Friday night. Harrison says he not only talks to his players about the game conditions leading up to kickoff, but presents elements to them in order to make their practices more game-like.

"If we know that it is going to be wet on a Friday night, and it's not going to rain leading up to that, we may bring a bucket of water out to practice," Harrison said. "And between every play dunk the ball in a bucket of water so that it gets a little bit slippery -- so that we are practicing with something similar that we will catch in a game condition -- so that the kids that are handling the ball will have to handle a wet ball."

Coaches, parents and athletic directors understand that Maryland weather can be unpredictable. Although coaches will do everything in their ability to give their team stability throughout the season, the weather will continuously cause them to adapt.

"I think if you're a coach in the state of Maryland, the biggest thing you can do as far as the weather is concerned, is just have a little bit of patience," Harrison said.
December 9th, 2018By: Ed Waldman

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