The first day of practice arrives a little earlier this fall and public school football coaches could not be happier to get started Wednesday instead of waiting until Saturday.
"For us, it's vital," said Franklin coach Anthony Burgos, whose team kicks off Sept. 6 against Calvert Hall. "We're opening our season with a team that's already been practicing a week and a half. For us to get these extra three days allows us to prepare more for our opening game."
Those three days give coaches back the time they lost last fall when the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association implemented newly legislated rules for gradually acclimatizing athletes to the sometimes-searing August heat and humidity that can be deadly when athletes are not used to it.
Coaches still had three weeks to prepare for their season opener last year, but less practice time in the early days erased about 15 hours of preseason work.
Burgos noticed the difference.
"I think the timing takes a little longer," he said. "Especially with the [coaches who are] teachers going back to work [on Monday] and with the changes to two-a-day practices, you really lose a lot. For them to give us these three days back, I think, was a must.
"Had we started on Saturday, obviously, everybody would be on the same playing field, so you have to make do, but it hurts teams that are playing outside of [the MPSSAA]. People will say, 'That's your fault for scheduling Calvert Hall,' but at the same time, I think it's a game Franklin's due for."
Dunbar faced Calvert Hall in a similar situation last year, and Poets coach Lawrence Smith said he couldn't cover everything he wanted in preseason.
"With the way you have to practice now, those three days really help," Smith said. "It's really tough when you're trying to put in an offense. It's tough on defense, too, but offense takes time to catch up with defense. Now you have three more days of getting those reps."
Under the heat acclimatization rule, which must be followed no matter the weather, public school football teams can practice only once a day for the first five days. Players wear only helmets for two days, adding shoulder pads for the next three days. Not until the sixth day can teams practice with full padding and full contact. The first game day is Sept. 6.
The rule also limits practice time for all fall sports to three hours for a single session, although a separate walkthrough session is allowed with a three-hour break in between. Starting the sixth day, teams can practice twice a day for no more than five hours total. Each day of two-a-days must be followed by a single practice day or a rest day.
Because the law went into effect in May 2012, MPSSAA officials had to quickly formulate a policy for last fall, and they didn't have a lot of time to consider how much practice time would be lost with the changes. Many football coaches complained that they lost too much time.
MPSSAA executive director Ned Sparks heard them.
"We found that in preseason, the coaches and teams lost about a third of their practice time," Sparks said. "On one hand, we have to go slow and be careful not to overheat the youngsters, but on the other hand, we need to make sure of the training and the skill set, so they don't hurt themselves [when games start].
"We went to the State Board [of Education] and made a proposal stating that since we lost about a third of our total hours — it was probably 50 hours before, and we lost 15 hours or so — if we start three days earlier and still keep the same heat acclimatization format, that would catch us up."
The Board of Education approved the change, and fall practice — for all public school sports — now begins three-and-a-half weeks before the first game rather than the previously mandated three weeks.
This year, for the first time, Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association football teams are also subject to mandatory heat acclimatization rules similar to the public school rules. The MIAA has had guidelines in place but wasn't bound by the state law that applied to public schools. Still, MIAA officials strongly suggested last fall that coaches follow the guidelines, giving notice that they would be mandated this fall.
"When it became one of the hot topic issues and the state devised a plan, we felt that we should have a policy that was up to date," MIAA executive director Lee Dove said. "The state took it very seriously, and we did, too. We felt we needed something in writing, a guideline that schools could follow and everybody would be on equal footing."
The MIAA also compensated by adding three days to the start of football practice, pushing it up to Aug. 5. As public school teams get started Wednesday, MIAA football teams are on the eighth day of practice. They must take every seventh day off and are only allowed two-a-days every other day.
Among football coaches, there has been mixed reaction, Dove said.
"Some feel we've tightened the reins too much. Others certainly understand it," Dove said. "We certainly don't want to put ourselves in a situation that, for any school, we have a tragic event because of heat acclimatization problems. I get it [that] some coaches are very aggressive, and they have an agenda that they want to get in. They have a lot to do. But you shouldn't do that at the expense of the safety of the kids, so, I think for the most part, everybody's bought into it."
Several MIAA A Conference teams open their seasons in less than two weeks — including Gilman, which plays Good Counsel at Towson University on Aug. 23; St. Frances, a newcomer to the MIAA A Conference that is scheduled to travel to play Nease (Fla.) in Orlando on Aug. 23; and Calvert Hall, which travels to St. John's (D.C.) on Aug. 24.
"The extra three days was one of the things I pushed for when the league started talking about this," Calvert Hall coach Donald Davis said, "particularly when you look at guys in our league who are playing out-of-league guys who start [practice] on the first [of August]. The [Washington Catholic Athletic Conference] and teams from Florida, those guys start on Aug. 1. If we didn't have those three days, that difference would become a big advantage for those guys."