LAND O’ LAKES — Tara Mendres starts the day in her office, but never stays there long. She takes down a stack of water coolers, filling each one with ice.
Mendres lugs the ice-filled coolers on a golf cart, along with a medical bag that includes a data thermometer to check the core temperature of any athlete who shows signs of overheating.
“Thank goodness I’ve never I had to use it,” she says.
It is all part of her job as an athletic trainer. Sunlake High’s football team has an afternoon practice. The players are in full pads. The temperature keeps climbing outside.
A football player flags Mendres down before she takes off in the cart. He needs his ankles taped. So she heads back inside.
Mendres takes on many tasks. She monitors players for injuries and heat exhaustion. She checks the weather to see if the team needs to take shelter for lightning.
And she does it full time.
Until recently, Pasco was the only county in the area to employ full-time trainers year-round for its 13 public high schools. That’s a cost of $300,000 per year. On Tuesday, Hillsborough County’s school board officially approved full-time trainers for its 27 high schools. Pinellas County has trainers during the school year for its 16 public schools, but not in the summer.
“I’ve got to give a lot of credit to (Pasco County athletic director) Matt Wicks,” Mendres said. “He’s the one that’s really made the push for the trainers.”
Mendres works for PT Solutions, which supplies the trainers to Pasco County schools and will be one of three organizations to help staff Hillsborough schools. She is required to spend a minimum of 32 hours a week at Sunlake. Her time is divvied up between all sports’ practices and games.
Still, Mendres devotes a good chunk of her week in the fall to football.
“You have to be out there all the time,” Mendres said. “It’s the nature of the sport.”
At the field, Mendres fills 36 water bottles. One of the ice coolers has towels the players can use to soak themselves during breaks.
Once practice starts, Mendres pays close attention to the offensive linemen.
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“They are the most vulnerable for any heat exhaustion,” said Mendres, who also is the supervisor for other trainers on the east side of Pasco County.
The three players from the state who died during football practices or conditioning the past six years —Middleton’s Hezekiah B. Walters, Fort Myers Riverdale’s Zach Martin-Polsenberg and Sebastian River’s William Shogran Jr. — were all linemen.
Mendres checks to see if the players are lethargic, whether they place their hands on their hips or start bending over — all signs of overheating.
One Sunlake player is not dressed. He had a concussion, followed by a car accident, and is still waiting to be cleared by doctors. He pleads with Mendres to get on the field. She explains to him that there are protocols to follow, that it is better to be healthy at the start of the season when the games matter.
Another player comes off the field complaining about soreness in his shoulder. Mendres checks him over for injury.
Before practice ends, a lineman asks Mendres for a favor. The sole of his cleat is falling off and needs repairing. Mendres whips out the electrical tape.
After gathering around for a post-practice huddle, Seahawks first-year coach Trey Burdick goes over the injury report with Mendres.
Burdick worked at Tallahassee Godby before coming to Sunlake as an assistant in 2008. He said there was no trainer his first few years.
“Leon County always had trainers,” Burdick said. “So when I got down here and they didn’t have them, it blew my mind. I was an assistant coach. I was taping ankles, and we were calling ambulances and stuff.
"We’re lucky to have Tara here now. As much pressure and stress and the many ways coaches are pulled now, to not have that responsibility and to be able to rely on a professional is amazing. And Tara does a great job.”
Staff writer Bob Putnam can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @BobbyHomeTeam