Carlos Zavala’s recommendation to the city of Modesto earlier this week would have made his younger self cringe.
As a professional playing in Mexico, Zavala embraced the heat. He ran circles around the opposition, carving a path that led to more than 550 games and a place in the Rochester Rhinos’ Hall of Fame.
As an executive director and a coach for the Modesto Youth Soccer Association, Zavala can’t ask the same of today’s youth. So on Monday, he recommended the city close Mary Grogan Community Park, of which Ajax is a tenant.
It’s simply too hot.
The Director of Coaching for the Modesto Ajax, MYSA’s competitive program, Zavala understands the perils of playing in temperatures exceeding 100 degrees, especially on the seven turf fields at Mary Grogan.
He estimates the fields are 60 to 70 degrees hotter than the air temperature because of the recycled rubber pellets that help absorb shock, and with a forecast of four more days in the 100s, Zavala advised the city to bolt the gates.
The city was one step ahead.
Parks, Recreation, Neighborhoods acting manager Nathan Houx and Kelly Gallagher, manager of Parks Operations, closed the park Monday. It will reopen “as soon as the weather permits,” Parks and Recreation administrative analyst Marco Sepulveda said. “We’re hoping for Monday, but if it cools down this weekend, we could reopen this weekend. It all just depends on how the weather cooperates.”
Using a heat gun, Sepulveda said the on-field temperature registered at 180 degrees at 3 o’clock Monday.
“That stuff gets hot,” Sepulveda said. “At some point, you’re talking about melting cleats and that sort of thing.”
Zavala has canceled practice this week. Ajax is home to more than 400 players, ranging in age, comprising 35 teams. Only a few of those teams have scheduled scrimmages this week, none of which will be played at Mary Grogan.
“My opinion is safety first,” Zavala said. “Let’s err on the side of caution.”
Since taking over director of coaching duties in February of 2016, Zavala said there have only been a few “minor” heat-related incidents. Last July, he was forced to cut a camp short because of the weather. Instead of drills or scrimmages, the kids and coaches finished with a water fight.
“One thing we must do is pay attention to the signs: Are they lethargic in practice? Do they want water breaks? Are they sweating too much? Are they dizzy? Those are all signs of dehydration,” Zavala said. “In situations like this, we cancel practice nine times out of 10. For the younger kids, we have to cancel. For the older kids, can we practice for an hour or hour-and-a-half?”
Zavala was never this concerned about the heat as a professional player in Mexico in the mid-1990s. He thrived in adverse conditions, and one of his teams often used the heat and humidity to their advantage.
Cancun would irrigate the field before matches, turning the stadium into a hot box. While opposing teams would struggle with the humidity – Zavala likened it to breathing fire – the Pioneers played comfortably.
“We did it everyday,” Zavala said. “We would have teams from different regions of the country that would die after the first half because of the humidity. It was extremely painful to play under those conditions. But when you’re conditioned to do that, your body can hold on … it can hold up. When you’re not used to it, you’re basically breathing hot air and it burns your lungs.”
Soccer is the sport of season, but football also makes a cameo appearance in June.
The 32nd annual North/South Rotary All-Star Football Game is Saturday at Veterans Stadium in Merced. The game pits the North, a band of all-stars from the Stanislaus District, against the South, a roster that draws from the Central Section.
The North is coached by Turlock High’s James Peterson.
He has chosen to conduct practices this week at Joe Debely Stadium, another turf facility in the Central Valley, from 5 to 7 p.m. Peterson said heat isn’t an issue beyond 6 p.m. “when the Delta breeze cools off the stadium pretty good.”
Until that point, though, he and his staff, complete with a trainer provided by Rotary officials, remain on high alert. They watch players closely during warm-ups and drills, especially those that have come into camp out of shape.
“There were a few kids that didn’t play in the Lions game and maybe haven’t put in as much work as they should,” Peterson said referring to the 44th annual Central California Lions All-Star Football Game played last week at Tracy High. “There were a few (kids) you could pick out and say, ‘Oh, they haven’t been running.’ You could see them right away.”
To combat the heat, Peterson won’t cancel practice, as Zavala has.
Instead, he will monitor the activity level and lighten the load on his all-stars. On Monday, players wore only a helmet, and the 50-man roster was separated into platoons.
“We’re trying to save these guys for Saturday, anyway,” Peterson said. “I want them fresh and feeling good.”