Using Heads in the Heat of Competition

December 20, 2013

By Rob Kaminski
MHSAA benchmarks editor

With so much recent attention to the risks and recognition of concussions in collision sports, athletic leaders have put their heads together to address far more common – but often overlooked – threats to the health of our student-athletes: heat and sudden cardiac arrest.

The No. 1 killer of young athletes is sudden cardiac arrest, while heat stroke victims can surpass that during the year’s hottest months. While the moment of impact leading to a concussion is totally unpredictable, athletic trainers, coaches and administrators have the ability to diminish the occurrences of cardiac arrest and heatstroke. Typically, there is a pre-existing condition, or family history suggesting probabilities for sudden cardiac arrest, which can be treated when detected. And, the perils associated with hot weather – heat stroke, prostration – are almost always completely preventable.

The MHSAA has addressed both issues recently. With assistance from numerous medical governing bodies, the annual pre-participation physical form was revamped and expanded prior to the 2011-12 school year to include comprehensive information regarding participants’ medical history.

In May, the Representative Council adopted a Model Policy for Managing Heat & Humidity (see below), a plan many schools have since adopted at the local level. The plan directs schools to monitor the heat index at an activity site once the air temperature reaches 80 degrees and provides recommendations when the heat index reaches certain levels, including ceasing activities when it rises above 104 degrees.

The topic of heat-related illnesses receives a lot of attention at the start of fall when deaths at the professional, collegiate and interscholastic levels of sport occur, especially since they are preventable in most cases with the proper precautions. In football, data from the National Federation of State High School Associations shows 41 high school players died from heat stroke between 1995 and 2012.

“We know now more than we ever have about when the risk is high and who is most at risk, and we’re now able to communicate that information better than ever before to administrators, coaches, athletes and parents," said Jack Roberts, executive director of the MHSAA. “Heat stroke is almost always preventable, and we encourage everyone to avail themselves of the information on our website.

“Schools need to be vigilant about providing water during practices, making sure that students are partaking of water and educating their teams about the need for good hydration practices.”

All of which is not to say concussions aren’t a serious matter; they are. In fact, leaders in sport safety can take advantage of the concussion spotlight to illuminate these additional health threats.

A recent New York Times story (May 2013) by Bill Pennington featured a February 2013 gathering in Washington organized by the National Athletic Trainers Association. In the article, Dr. Douglas J. Casa, professor of kinesiology at the University of Connecticut and Chief Operating Officer of the Korey Stringer Institute (founded in the late NFL offensive lineman’s name to promote prevention of sudden death in sport), suggests just that.

“All the talk about head injuries can be a gateway for telling people about the other things they need to know about, like cardiac events and heat illness,” said Casa in the article. “It doesn’t really matter how we get through to people as long as we continue to make sports safer.”

Education and prevention methods need to find a permanent place in school programs if those programs are to thrive and avoid becoming targets at which special interest groups can aim budgetary arrows.

Dr. Jonathan Drezner, the president of the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, said in the New York Times piece that sudden cardiac arrest is “so incredibly tragic and stunning that people aren’t comfortable putting it into the everyday conversation. I do wish, to some extent, it was something people talked more about because we are getting to a place where we could prevent many of these deaths.”

When it comes to heat-related deaths or illnesses, the prevention efforts can be even more successful by educating the masses. And, these efforts can be done at minimal cost to schools.

“That’s the thing about curtailing exertional heat illness: it’s 100 percent preventable, and unlike other health threats to athletes, the solutions can be very low-tech and inexpensive,” said Dr. Michael F. Bergeron, the director of the National Institute for Athletic Health & Performance at the University of South Dakota’s Sanford Medical Center, in the New York Times story.

To assist with cost and data maintenance, the MHSAA has teamed with Sports Health to provide schools with psychrometers (heat measurement instruments) at a discounted rate, and has built online tools to track heat and humidity conditions.

Managing heat and humidity policy

  1. Thirty minutes prior to the start of an activity, and again 60 minutes after the start of that activity, take temperature and humidity readings at the site of the activity. Using a digital sling psychrometer is recommended. Record the readings in writing and maintain the information in files of school administration. Each school is to designate whose duties these are: generally the athletic director, head coach or certified athletic trainer.
  2. Factor the temperature and humidity into a Heat Index Calculator and Chart to determine the Heat Index. If a digital sling psychrometer is being used, the calculation is automatic.

If the Heat Index is below 95 degrees: 

All Sports

  • Provide ample amounts of water.  This means that water should always be available and athletes should be able to take in as much water as they desire.
  • Optional water breaks every 30 minutes for 10 minutes in duration.
  • Ice-down towels for cooling.
  • Watch/monitor athletes carefully for necessary action.

If the Heat Index is 95 degrees to 99 degrees: 

All Sports

  • Provide ample amounts of water. This means that water should always be available and athletes should be able to take in as much water as they desire.
  • Optional water breaks every 30 minutes for 10 minutes in duration.
  • Ice-down towels for cooling.
  • Watch/monitor athletes carefully for necessary action.

Contact sports and activities with additional equipment:

  • Helmets and other possible equipment removed while not involved in contact.
  • Reduce time of outside activity. Consider postponing practice to later in the day. 
  • Recheck temperature and humidity every 30 minutes to monitor for increased Heat Index.

If the Heat Index is above 99 degrees to 104 degrees: 

All Sports

  • Provide ample amounts of water. This means that water should always be available and athletes should be able to take in as much water as they desire.
  • Mandatory water breaks every 30 minutes for 10 minutes in duration.
  • Ice-down towels for cooling.
  • Watch/monitor athletes carefully for necessary action.
  • Alter uniform by removing items if possible.
  • Allow for changes to dry T-shirts and shorts.
  • Reduce time of outside activity as well as indoor activity if air conditioning is unavailable.
  • Postpone practice to later in the day.

Contact sports and activities with additional equipment

  • Helmets and other possible equipment removed if not involved in contact or necessary for safety.
  • If necessary for safety, suspend activity.

Recheck temperature and humidity every 30 minutes to monitor for increased Heat Index.

If the Heat Index is above 104 degrees: 

All sports

  • Stop all outside activity in practice and/or play, and stop all inside activity if air conditioning is unavailable.

Note: When the temperature is below 80 degrees there is no combination of heat and humidity that will result in need to curtail activity.

PHOTO: The Shepherd volleyball team includes hydration during a timeout in a match this fall. 

Championship Experience from Coach's Point of View Unimaginable, Unforgettable

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for

April 4, 2024

WYOMING – As the final buzzer sounded, it was all I could’ve imagined – and more.

West Michigan

In the weeks leading up to March 16 and the Division 4 championship game, I experienced every emotion possible as I envisioned what it would feel like to be an assistant coach on the bench at Michigan State’s Breslin Center as the Wyoming Tri-unity Christian boys basketball team achieved its ultimate goal.

In my first year as the junior varsity coach at Tri-unity, I had been on the varsity bench for a majority of the season, assisting legendary coach Mark Keeler and fellow assistants Brent Voorhees, Bob Przybysz and Mike Kaman.

I was there encouraging, motivating and supporting the varsity team. It was a role I embraced, and had become accustomed to over my almost 30 years coaching high school basketball.

I started coaching in 1995 as Jim Ringold gave me my first opportunity as the freshmen girls coach at Wyoming Kelloggsville High School. I would then coach Kelloggsville’s freshmen boys team for eight seasons, while also coaching the freshmen girls at Grandville High School. I would also coach the junior varsity teams at both schools.

I love coaching. I have a passion for it. I’ve always enjoyed getting the most out of my players while creating a bond between player and coach.

When girls basketball season moved from fall to winter joining the boys in 2007-08, I stayed at Grandville. I spent 21 seasons there before stepping down.

I still wanted to coach, and I heard that the Tri-unity junior varsity position was available. I had always respected and liked Keeler and was excited for the prospect of joining a perennial powerhouse.

I didn’t really know about Tri-unity growing up in the Wyoming Park school district. But as a young kid, I would rush home and eagerly await the afternoon delivery of the Grand Rapids Press. I would quickly find the sports page and read it from front to back, hoping one day to see my byline.

I began writing for the Press’ sports department in 1997. It was my dream job. And that’s also when I first started covering Tri-unity boys basketball.

I remember watching eventual NBA all-star Chris Kaman, along with Bryan Foltice and others play for this little Christian school and have unbridled success under Keeler.

MHSAA Tournament runs became the norm for the Defenders. They won their first Finals title in 1996, and they would claim four more over the next 26 years. They also had six runner-up finishes.

Tri-unity’s assistant coaches, including Holzwarth (second from right), monitor the action.I was sitting on media row writing for in 2022 when Brady Titus led Tri-unity to its fifth state championship.

I never thought that two years later I would be on the coaching staff as the Defenders pursued another one. But there I was.

I knew this year’s team had the potential to be special.

Tri-unity had returned four of its five starters from a year ago, after suffering a heart-breaking two-point loss to Munising in the Division 4 Final.

Eight seniors were on the roster. The team had a mix of talented guard play, senior leadership, size and depth. We had shooters and we played great defense, a trademark of Keeler’s teams.

This was the year, and that heaped lofty expectations on Keeler and the team. It was basically “state championship or bust.” Anything less would be considered a disappointment.

Keeler wanted it badly, and I knew the players did as well. I think they felt the pressure at times of living up to the expectations that had been set.

We had several lopsided wins, but also had a few tough losses to Division 2 and Division 3 teams – Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central, Wyoming Lee, Grandville Covenant Christian and Schoolcraft – all talented teams that I think made us better despite falling short.

As the postseason started, there was anxiety and excitement.

We were one of the favorites, but it wouldn’t be easy. We would have to earn each of the seven victories needed to win it all.

First came a District title, but then we had to play a quality Fowler team in its home gym in the Regional Semifinal. This was a game we knew would be a challenge – and it was.

We led by only one at halftime after a 7-0 run to end the second quarter. The score was tied 33-33 in the fourth quarter before senior Lincoln Eerdmans made a key 3-pointer to spark our victory.

As we went through the handshake line, several Fowler players said, “Good luck in the Finals.”

Our defense played extremely well in the Regional Final and state Quarterfinal to secure our team another trip to the Breslin.

St. Ignace was our opponent in the Semifinal, and we had to face a senior guard who could do it all – Jonny Ingalls. He lived up to the hype. He was good, and we didn’t have any answer for him in the first half. We trailed by one, only to fall behind by seven late in the third quarter.

Was this the end? Were we going to fall one game short of our goal?

Holzwarth and the coaching staff greet Keaton Blanker (4) as he comes off the floor. We were down by five points in the fourth quarter, but junior guard Keaton Blanker, and others, rose to the occasion. We rallied to win a tight one, and now we were one win away from a Division 4 title.

The night before the championship game, we stayed at a hotel in East Lansing as we had the first game of the day at 10 a.m. We had a team dinner, and the players seemed relaxed and eager to close out the season the way they had intended.

There was one thing that worried me. We were playing Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart. A team we had played in the second game of the season and defeated by 30 points.

Would we be overconfident? I had no idea. They were a different team now, but so were we. Anything could happen.

Keeler gave a spirited and emotional pregame speech. In last year’s loss to Munising, he felt like the team played not to lose, and this season his big thing was “I want to win.” He said it to every starter that Saturday morning during the final moments in the locker room before tipoff, asking all five individually to say it back – which they did, the first one quietly but followed by teammates replying louder and louder as everyone got fired up and “I want to win” rang through the locker room. I think it inspired all of us.

After a competitive first quarter, we started to find our rhythm and expanded the lead. We were ahead by double-digits at the half, and a state title was within our grasp. Senior Wesley Kaman buried a 3-pointer in the final seconds of the third quarter to give us a 20-point cushion. It was at that point I knew we were going to win.

All five starters reached double-figure scoring, led by Jordan VanKlompenberg with 19 points and Owen Rosendall with 14. That balance was intentional and a successful sign for our team all season.

The exhilaration of winning was intoxicating. I loved watching the boys celebrate something they had worked so hard to accomplish. I will never forget their faces. I looked to my right from my seat on the bench and watched them running onto the court, just wearing their joy. They were just elated.

I was so happy for Keeler, a devout Christian who is respected by so many people in high school basketball circles. I learned so much from him this season. The way he approaches each game, his competitiveness. He instills his strong faith in his players and understands that the game of basketball is a bridge to a higher purpose.

Keeler is the fourth-winningest coach in state boys basketball history with a record of 694-216, and will be the winningest active coach next winter as all-time leader Roy Johnston retired from Beaverton at the end of this season.

The tournament run was one of the best coaching experiences I have had, and I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to be a part of a state championship season.

Dean HolzwarthDean Holzwarth has covered primarily high school sports for Grand Rapids-based WOOD-TV for five years after serving at the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years along with shorter stints at the Ionia Sentinel and WZZM. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties. 

PHOTOS (Top) The Wyoming Tri-unity Christian bench, including the author (far right) and head coach Mark Keeler (middle), celebrate a 3-pointer late in the Defenders’ Division 4 championship win over Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart. (Middle) Tri-unity’s assistant coaches, including Holzwarth (second from right), monitor the action. (Below) Holzwarth and the coaching staff greet Keaton Blanker (4) as he comes off the floor. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)