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Bill would expand high school sports practice seasons in Washington County

February 09, 2008|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

ANNAPOLIS -- To Patti Leazier of Clear Spring, more practice would be perfect.

In Washington County, the time between the opening day of fall sports practice and the first day of school has shrunk in recent years. The county's high school athletes get less time to prepare, compared to other school districts, and possibly a greater chance to get hurt, observers say.

Leazier, a two-time football mom, lateraled her suggestion -- make the first day of fall practice earlier -- to Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., R-Washington/Allegany.

Myers ran with the idea to Annapolis, where he filed it as a bill this month.

Washington County Public Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan likes it. So does State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick, according to Myers.

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Maryland's public secondary schools can't start sports practices before Aug. 15 for the fall, Nov. 15 for the winter and March 1 for the spring.

Deadlines are a bigger issue for the fall season, which includes football, soccer, volleyball, cross-country and golf in Washington County.

Some say Washington County has a competitive disadvantage because its academic calendar starts several days earlier than other schools'.

At one time, school traditionally started after Labor Day.

Since Morgan arrived in 2001, opening day has moved into August.

For the 2007-08 school year, the first day was Aug. 22. It will be Aug. 20 in 2008-09.

"We get 'em in early, we get 'em out early," Morgan said.

Local families favor an early start to summer break, which is important for students who have jobs, she said.

Myers' bill would change the earliest practice date to 14 days before school starts, which would add another nine days in 2008-09, letting Washington County catch up.

"This now will give them a level playing field, pardon the pun," Morgan said.

Other Western Maryland schools start classes later than Washington County. The 2007-08 opening day was Aug. 27 in Allegany, Frederick and Carroll counties and Aug. 28 in Garrett County.

Teachers, including those who coach sports, start their jobs a few days before school starts, which cuts into the practice season.

Clear Spring High School football coach Craig Bathgate said his team had twice-daily practices during the day on Aug. 15 and 16.

When his teaching duties started on Aug. 17, the team switched to afternoon and evening two-a-day sessions, but darkness usually cut their practice time short.

When classes began, the team switched to a single practice after school.

The result was about nine long and short days of practice before the Blazers' first scrimmage against two Pennsylvania schools, which started their practice seasons "considerably earlier," Bathgate said.

"There was a huge conditioning difference in the scrimmage," he said.

Clear Spring played its first game of the regular season on Sept. 7.

In West Virginia, the sports year follows a national calendar that begins the first full week of July, said Ray Londeree, the assistant executive director of the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission, an oversight organization.

In 2008-09, football, cross-country and soccer can start practicing on Monday of week 5, or Aug. 4 in 2008. Volleyball can start on Monday of week 6.

The first football contact drills will be allowed on Aug. 12, the first scrimmage four days later and the first game on Aug. 25.

"All of our sports require a minimum of 14 days of sports-specific conditioning before they play a sport," Londeree said.

Classes started at all three Eastern Panhandle school systems on Aug. 27 for 2007-08.

A local orthopedic surgeon backed the idea of extending Washington County's fall sports practice season.

Dr. Roberta Rothen, an orthopedic surgeon with the Center for Joint Surgery and Sports Medicine in Hagerstown, said athletes' bodies need about three weeks to get used to exertion in the heat.

That's also a good minimum for building muscle strength and endurance, she said.

When fall sports practices begin, "I see a lot of overuse, overtraining injuries, right off the bat," Rothen said.

Joel Weaver, a physical therapist's assistant in Hagerstown, said athletes usually have offseason conditioning programs, although it's up to individuals to follow them.

A push for more practices might simply be coaches wanting more time with their team, but it takes more than 14 days to get into "football shape," Weaver said.

Rothen said an earlier start would keep coaches from cramming in too much training in a compressed time.

"If they could just add one week," she said, "it would protect them in a lot of ways."

Leazier chauffeured one son, Jereme, who is now 22, to Williamsport High School for practice each day when Clear Spring didn't have a football team.

Once the Blazers had their own football program, her younger son, Zachari, played junior varsity, then got hurt as he had a chance to move up to varsity the following year.

Zachari, 15, was going to be a kicker on the varsity team, plus play tight end and on the defensive line, Bathgate said.

On the third or fourth day of practice, Zachari suffered a hip flexor injury.

"It just never healed," Bathgate said.

A University of Michigan Health System Web site describes a hip flexor strain as an injury from overuse of the muscles that help a person flex a knee or do high kicks.

Leazier said some might dismiss her as a "whiner" or because she's a woman. Others might not want sports practice to cut into their summer.

But she's convinced a change is for the best.

"Without enough practice," she said, "we are endangering our athletes."

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