Members of the Coral Shores varsity football team try to cool off during a water break at a steamy Aug. 14 practice at the football field. DOUG FINGER/Keys Weekly

All across South Florida, people are remarking that it is the hottest summer they can remember, and a quick glimpse at any phone’s weather app will concur. While most can escape the oppressive temperatures, avoiding the outdoors entirely is not so easy for many high school sports teams. To protect the young men and women who play prep sports, coaches, athletic directors and trainers have received advanced training in heat illness prevention and treatment as part of the Zachary Martin Act and the latest FHSAA guidelines. 

Zachary Martin Polsenberg was a high school football lineman who collapsed after a long practice on June 29, 2017. The Lee County athlete passed away from complications of heat stroke 11 days later. Since then, his family and lawmakers have worked alongside medical professionals to create a comprehensive plan which carefully balances the need for added safety when temperatures soar with the desire student athletes have to participate in outdoor sports. Some of the measures include the availability of ice baths, frequent water and shade breaks and careful monitoring of the temperature using a wet bulb reading. Unlike regular thermometers, wet bulb temperature measurement takes into consideration the stress direct sunlight and humidity have on a person outdoors. 

Coaches and athletes know they have limited time to prepare for upcoming seasons, but it’s so hot outside that even if safety were not a factor, they would be miserable due to high temperatures and humidity. Fortunately for the student athletes of Monroe County, school staff understand this and work hard to ensure players are as safe and comfortable as possible – and some are even getting creative in finding ways to beat the heat.

At Marathon High School, athletic trainer Luis Leal monitors the wet bulb reading frequently, before and during practices. He and athletic director Lance Martin clear teams to practice outdoors and ensure they follow the state’s guidelines regarding how long a team can remain outdoors. Under 82 degrees, teams are free to practice normally, but when the wet bulb reading surpasses 82, there is a sliding scale of how long teams can practice outdoors and how often they must break for shade and water. Larger teams like football are making it work by using the hotter hours of the day for classroom learning of plays and watching film. 

The golf and cross country teams are avoiding the afternoon heat altogether. “We usually run around the city, but it is way too hot to not be close to water,” said Jim Murphy, the Marathon boys cross country coach. He added, “(Girls) coach Darby (Sheehan) and myself get with coach Leal each day for guidance and to make sure we are in compliance with the FHSAA. We always have backup plans to cross-train inside if needed.”

Key West’s runners are taking a similar approach. Head girls coach Keara McGraw said, “We are getting creative with this current (no end in sight) heat wave. I’ve adjusted workouts and offered more morning practices, lots of water breaks, pace adjusting, and trying to get access to the pool for some good old cross-training in the water. Ice pops and frozen water bottles have become a pretty regular thing these days, although I may need an ice pop sponsor soon at this rate!” 

In the Upper Keys, Coral Shores athletic director Ed Holly is taking the safety of students seriously. “We are hypersensitive to the impact of heat on our student athletes,” he said. “We are working very closely with our athletic trainer to implement our heat action plan.”

Head golf coach Danielle Thomas said her golfers are feeling the heat, too. 

“It’s definitely hot out there; I tell the golfers to wear light color shirts and dry fit material so it’s more breathable,” she said. Thomas also brings extra water to her team’s practices and encourages her athletes to bring hats and umbrellas when they are on the course. She is also using the shade of the driving range at Founders Park, scheduling sessions there only when the golfers can be completely shaded. And when it’s just too hot no matter what precautions are taken, she calls it a day. 

“I did have to cancel practice once because there was just no breeze and I was concerned for them,” she said.

Tracy McDonald fled to the Keys from the frozen mountains of Pennsylvania hours after graduating from college and never looked back. She is a second generation coach and educator, and has taught in the public school system for over 25 years. She and her husband met at a beginning teacher meeting in 1997 and have three children born and raised in Monroe County. In her free time, McDonald loves flea markets, historical fiction and long runs in the heat.