St. Johns County soccer programs find solutions for cold-weather contests

Bella Kober’s tolerance has disappeared.

 

When she was younger, the Nease junior would not have flinched at the idea of playing soccer in shorts when it’s as blustery and cold as it’s been in St. Johns County this week. Then, she moved to Florida.

“I have played in some snow and really cold weather in 10 degrees — not fun,” Kober admitted. “Most of the girls down here haven’t played in that weather. It’s hard to get used to.”

Kober moved from Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, to St. Johns County in November 2015. Here, soccer is a winter sport. It’s also a place where “winter” is considered anything below 60 degrees.

She is one of the scores of Northeast Florida soccer players who have taken the pitch, despite the high temperature being nearly 20 degrees cooler than normal. It may not be fun to play in such cool weather; but, that hasn’t stopped Kober from scoring at the same torrid pace she has all season.

“After playing for a while, you forget about the cold,” she said. “You have to, even though it’s freezing.”

Freezing by Florida standards has meant highs in the 40s and multiple freeze warnings for St. Johns County and the surrounding counties. The county was under one on Friday night when Kober and the Panthers hosted Episcopal.

“The biggest thing is little things such as making sure you’re layered up during warm-ups, zipping up your jackets on the bench or you’re wearing beanies,” said Nease girls soccer coach Jay Shepherd. “You start with how they are preparing in terms of dress and how prepared they are in terms of keeping the head in. You keep their mind focused on anything other than the cold. You keep them moving, that’s the biggest thing.”

Nease has not had a problem staying focused this season. Friday’s 1-0 win over Episcopal was the 12th straight win for the Panthers. Kober assisted Mackenzie Hochreiter’s goal to help Nease improve to 13-2.

Nease was not the only St. Johns County program excelling in the elements. Temperatures were in the mid-40s when St. Joseph faced Providence in a non-district matchup late Friday afternoon at Versaggi Field.

When the contest kicked off it may have been the warmest evening of the week.

Thursday’s low temperature of 28 degrees at the Northeast Florida Regional Airport tied an all-time low set in 1979. Friday, the National Weather Service reported St. Augustine’s low temperature was 28 degrees, two degrees warmer than 2001’s all-time low.

In 2006, the American College of Sports Medicine took the position that exercise — which includes athletics — can be performed safely in the cold; but, it takes a series of steps to mitigate the risk:

  • Identify and assess the cold hazard.
  • Identify and assess contributing factors for cold-weather injuries.
  • Develop controls to mitigate the stress and strain on the body.
  • Implement a formal plan for dealing with the cold.
  • Use administrative oversight.

Few people understand those dynamics more than Menendez girls soccer coach Megann Schooley.

She captained Lynn University to a NAIA national title in 1992 and in the quarter century since has become an assistant professor at the University of St. Augustine in its physical therapy doctoral program.

The cold — relatively speaking — is just one aspect facing high varsity programs this week. Maintaining one’s fitness through the holiday break may be just as much of a physical challenge for the local teams that have taken the field this week.

“This is a time where the individual part of being on a team comes in,” said Schooley, who is in her fifth year as Menendez’s head coach. “We can tell them, but unless each individual is taking care of themselves and doing what’s best for the team, then you can run into trouble.”

That means going for a run, having a kickabout or training on one’s own. Kober said she did all of those, and lifted weights with her dad, over the break to remain fit.

As for Menendez, its first game after the holiday break will be Monday evening in Green Cove Springs. The Falcons (7-5) have held informal training sessions in the two weeks since classes were dismissed.

Schooley’s academic expertise is in performance training, so she can tell whether a player has put in the work while school has been out.

“Usually, I give it the first quarter of the game and the first 20 minutes and where whether they are going to settle down or whether this is a fitness issue in having touch on the ball,” Schooley said. “We talk about the cold; but, I tell the girls they can control what they can control. Your fitness and your touch on the ball, you can control those. Where you get in trouble is when girls don’t control the variables they can control: sleep, recovery, fitness and touch on the ball.”

Florida is one of six states that play soccer during the winter. At times, cooler-than-normal temperatures have shown to be an equalizer on the pitch.

Four years ago, Ponte Vedra’s boys played Ridgeview in a district soccer semifinal at Clay High School when temperatures were in the 30s at kickoff. The Sharks were the reigning state champions and the superior team — and facing a team that was forced to put one of its best players in goal that night — but needed penalty kicks to put away the Panthers. Ponte Vedra went 18-4-4 that year before bowing out in the regional final.

Recently, the Florida High School Athletic Association pushed the start of the season into November, meaning most schools will have at least a handful of games in January before the start of district tournaments. It’s a move Schooley and Shepherd welcomed because it meant fewer players were forced to ratchet up the intensity immediately after the winter break.

“Everyone is different in how they prepare themselves over the break,” Shepherd said. “One of the biggest things you see is when you get to games and it is this cold, are players preparing themselves to enter the game the right way?”

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