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COLUMN: Injuries Inevitable If High School Sports Hurry Back

It’s all fun and games until somebody gets hurt.

Generations of rambunctious youths have heard that cliché from concerned adults, but now’s the time to actually take heed.

It goes without saying we’re thrilled at the prospect of seeing Long Beach sports return from the COVID-19 shutdowns. It would be a gift to and from this community that would keep on giving.

However, time is running out between the most recent Los Angeles County stay-at-home order and the proposed return of CIF Southern Section sports in January. The situation could only leave weeks for preseason and practices after some student-athletes have been inactive for months.

My concern is that Long Beach student-athletes won’t have enough “normal” team activity to physically prepare their bodies for condensed seasons chock full of games.

“I’m scared,” Wilson football coach Mark Ziegenhagen said. “Forget about the virus, I’m worried about the safety issue as far as being in football shape. That’s not just lifting weights and running. A lot of things go into it, and I don’t know if a lot of outsiders understand that. They want them out there and playing and I get it. But at what cost?”

Consider how many injuries and illnesses have changed the landscape of the National Football League or other professionals who’ve tried to hurry back. These finely tuned elite athletes have had trouble staying healthy without a preseason, and we’re expecting high school and college students to fare better? Why?

Some local student-athletes haven’t been physically active for months, and lower level coaches like Lakewood girls’ volleyball junior varsity coach Adam Wadley have noticed the difference. He has been running the Lancers though strength and conditioning training on the football field since September, but they’re only able to meet twice a week.

“We’re doing as much as we can, but there’s only so much we can do out here,” Wadley said. “I tried to implement some volleyball footwork in there, but footwork, shuffling and blocking is a lot different doing it in the end zone of the football field than actually doing it in the gym with a net in front of you.”

Wadley, 25, played at Wilson High (2010-13) and Long Beach City College (2014-15) before joining the Lakewood coaching staff under his dad, Mike Wadley. He has been the junior varsity coach for the last five years where he deals with a wide range of talent level.

“When we first came back, the girls who play club were running the mile in 10+ minutes and they were tired,” Wadley said. “I can’t imagine how the girls who don’t play club, or who aren’t active, are going to do. We’ve been working on a lot of cardio to survive this marathon season, if it happens.”

Depending on the day and the weather, Wadley is putting the Lakewood girls’ volleyball players through circuit training that includes pushups, sit-ups and core work using their own body weight. He said he’s using a lot of the tools he learned while studying physical education at Cal State Dominguez Hills.

“Some girls don’t really know how to do a pushup or other certain workouts, so I have to ease it back,” he said. “A lot of kids now don’t work out by themselves. It’s mostly just from their PE classes in middle school.”

Wadley added that this work outside will only prepare his players for that and not the daily grind that comes from being in the gym with a tight schedule.

“Another thing that will be tougher for the girls not playing club is that they won’t be learning the proper technique on how to jump and stuff like that,” Wadley said. “That’s going to increase injury. A lot of them are awkward so they’re not going to have time to fine-tune those skills. They don’t know how to control their bodies yet.”

“We haven’t tackled a bag or a body in over a year,” Ziegenhagen said. “We can do all of the pushups and sit ups we want but the art of tackling is still not there. In the spring we’re working on that stuff on the bags. Even in the fall we’re still working on tackling. When is the concussion factor going to come into play when we put these kids out there and then months later we’re going to ask them to play another 10 games? Is it really worth it in the end?”

Wadley agreed, and specifically pointed out the skill of blocking at the net because most untrained volleyball players have a habit of kicking their feet under net when jumping.

“That could hurt themselves, their teammate or the person across the net because they don’t know what to do,” Wadley said. “I don’t know if we’re going to be able to practice before we play. It’s going to be so much crammed into like two weeks. So that’s tough.”

And that comes from a coach at Lakewood where they can easily fill the Varsity and lower level rosters. What about schools like Compton, Jordan or Cabrillo? If a team has a dozen players, and half of them are recovering from injury or COVID-19 exposure, they may be forced to forfeit so no one gets to play.

Even Long Beach State Director of Sports Performance, Laura Teel and her staff have been taking it slow while preparing the Beach basketball teams for their seasons to start this month. They’ve been doing outdoor activities since mid-October.

“We’re preparing for the season, but we’re also programming for the function of the human body,” Teel said. “We’re doing a lot to make sure the right muscles are working and working at the right time.”

Do you think lower-level high school kids have professional strength and conditioning coaches preparing their bodies this month?

“One thing I don’t like to hear is, “Oh, they’re young and they can get through this’,” Wadley said. “They’re susceptible to injury as well. Without proper training it’s going to be a lot of little nagging injuries. I can see more girls with just general soreness.”

What can be done to avoid this obvious pitfall?

I think we need to cut down the amount of games that teams are asked to play in a short period of time.

The CIF State office announced yesterday that schools won’t be able to return to practice or games until after Jan. 1 so all previously announced start dates are “on hold” until there’s updated guidelines from health officials.

They also need to allow for more full-contact and unrestricted practice time before games. They need more than a couple of weeks. I think a few more scrimmages instead of non-league contests will suffice if the point of bringing sports back is for the mental health of the student-athletes. It’s about being active, not adding unnecessary health risk.

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JJ Fiddler
JJ Fiddler is an award-winning sportswriter and videographer who has been covering Southern California sports for multiple newspapers and websites since 2004. After attending Long Beach State and creating the first full sports page at the Union Weekly Newspaper, he has been exclusively covering Long Beach prep sports since 2007.