Mike Powers| News-Bulletin photos
Keeping athletes and coaches hydrated is a top priority for high school athletic trainers

High school football practice has just started, but already the most valuable player’s at Los Lunas, Valencia and Belen are coming into focus.

Let’s hear it for Nicholas Gutierrez at LLHS, VHS’s Joshua Sears and Heather Juarez of BHS!

Not familiar with those names? They are the athletic trainers who work to keep student-athletes safe and whose job became more challenging with the recent blistering heat.

Heather Juarez helps BHS athletes stay healthy in a variety of ways, from taping ankles to hydration.

“Stinking hot,” is how Juarez described the conditions.

Gutierrez says, just take a look around. “The landscape is all wilted, dried up, and our bodies will do the same if we don’t stay hydrated.”

All three say, water, water and more water.

“We recommend to all our athletes to carry water bottles around the school, drinking water throughout the day,” Sears explained.

Gutierrez points out, “If a kid gets dehydrated, it makes my job 10 times harder.”

“Heat exhaustion and heat stroke are always a factor,” this time of year, “especially with football and all the equipment,” Juarez adds.

New Mexico Activities Association guidelines try to acclimate football players to the conditions. Players start in helmets, shoulder pads are added after a few days and full gear is permitted by the end of the first week.

If the heat index (a calculation using dew point temperature and relative humidity) is above 104 degrees, the NMAA says schools must act immediately.

“We have to change practice times,” says Sears. “If it’s between certain degrees, you have to adjust practices, how long you practice. We’re constantly monitoring those things.”

At VHS, athletic trainer Joshua Sears oversees the health of all Jaguar athletes.

A hand-held “web bulb globe temperature” thermometer, a WBGT, is used to gather instant heat index details.

Belen, Los Lunas and Valencia all have artificial surfaces for football and, as Juarez points out, the heat index on synthetic turf can be much hotter than on the natural grass at soccer practice only a few hundred yards away.

All three athletic trainers are responsible for other sports at the same time, zipping between football, soccer, volleyball and off-season programs working outdoors.

That is a lot of responsibility.

“It’s a constant worry,” Juarez says, while Sears offers, “I don’t see it as pressure. It’s just being aware, looking for warning signs.”

For Gutierrez, those warning signs include, “kids getting really red in the face, their lips will be chapped until they are cotton-mouthed — they are a little more sluggish.”

LLHS athletic trainer Nicholas Gutierrez sprays water on a football player to cool him down.

Continual follow-up is part of the process.

“Talking to athletes, making sure they’re not having slurred speech or not understanding what they are supposed to be doing within the play or the practice,” Sears adds.

If a player or coach is overcome by heat, the athletic trainers will immediately place them in either a cooling tub or a water trough, adding water or ice.

“We want to drop their temperature to a stable rate before we put them in an ambulance,” Gutierrez says. Scary stuff.

While Gutierrez, Juarez and Sears are the only athletic trainers at each school, they aren’t alone. Managers and players who aren’t practicing will help pass out water. Coaches were often heard ordering water breaks and asking about the heat index.

“I feel the coaches are doing a really good job,” Juarez said. “It’s a constant worry on any athletic trainers mind when it comes to heat.”

The monsoonal rains that moved through Valencia County Monday brought cooler temperatures but also another concern — lightening. Welcome to the life of an athletic trainer.

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Mike Powers spent more than 40 years as a television news and sports anchor, mostly in the Albuquerque market. He has won numerous awards including New Mexico Sportscaster of the Year. He covers a wide range of sports, including the Valencia County prep scene.