High School Football

When lightning strikes: What you need to know about how prep football handles bad weather

Manatee County high school football highlights for 2019 season

Highlights from Manatee County high school football games during the 2019 season.
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Highlights from Manatee County high school football games during the 2019 season.

Palmetto High athletic director Kenny Ansbro isn’t fazed by the poor weather on Friday nights at this time of year. He has become used to it after spending so much time in Florida.

Still, he vividly remembers the Tigers’ home football game against Manatee in 2017.

“There was a freak storm that literally developed a mile or two away,” Ansbro said. “Nobody had it on their WeatherBug (a forecasting service), nobody had it on their radars. It was one of the worst storms I’ve been involved in. People ran for cover. They got trapped under the bleachers, they got trapped in tents.

“I was thinking, ‘I’m going to catch all kinds of (grief) Monday,’ because I didn’t predict this or see this or check it out or whatever. I literally had not one complaint because it was one of those things that come up so fast. I don’t think anyone could’ve predicted it.”

Ansbro’s story demonstrates how quickly weather can change for the worst in Manatee County and around Florida when high school football teams are kicking off games in late summer and early fall.

A storm cell can pop up around game time or stall out near a stadium and wreak havoc.

But what actually goes into the decision to delay a game because of weather and into the decision to continue playing, postpone or cancel a game? And what can local high schools do to avoid the bad weather that always seems to impact their early-season games?

The answers to those questions are complicated and involve rules set by each district and factors that range from money to the playoff qualifying process to the schedule of youth football.

What causes delays

Lightning strikes, as measured by lightning detectors atop the football stadium or handheld detectors monitored by one of the home school’s administrators, that are too close to the field are what cause delays.

But there doesn’t appear to be a rule regarding what’s a safe distance.

The Florida High School Athletic Association recommends that each district sets its own policy using the National Federation of State High School Associations’ guidelines, which don’t set a strict rule regarding what’s a safe distance. Some districts in Florida choose to delay a game when there’s a lightning strike within six miles, within eight miles or within 10 miles.

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Weather quickly can change for the worst in Manatee County and around Florida when high school football teams are kicking off their games in the late summer and early fall. Bradenton Herald file photo

Who is responsible for clearing the field and starting the lightning delay depends on what time it is. Administrators from the home school hold jurisdiction over the field until 30 minutes before the regularly scheduled kickoff; at that time, officials are responsible.

The head official at each game usually will have a cellphone with a weather app on his or her person during the game, and an administrator from the home school will have access to a lightning detector and inform the official if there’s a strike that’s too close.

Every lightning strike that’s too close starts a 30-minute delay, even if pregame warm-ups or the game already is in a delay.

Delays can last up to two hours, whether it’s a 7:30 p.m. game being delayed until 9:30 p.m. or some combination of delays totaling two hours, before a decision about whether to continue playing, postpone the game or cancel the game must be made. The decision is made by the two head coaches, the two athletic directors and the head official.

And this is where teams must consider a lot of factors.

A Friday night game can be postponed until the next morning, but high school officials sometimes also officiate Saturday morning youth football games. Official Chuck Collums, who has officiated since 2004, estimated that 30 or 40 percent of each Friday night crew can’t make it back the next day. If many games are postponed, finding officials can be difficult.

If a game is postponed to another day, the visiting team must find transportation again, which can be a challenge if the game is played far away. For example, Palmetto played its Week 3 game (yes, there was a weather delay) at Sarasota Riverview, which is much closer than Port Charlotte, the host of Palmetto’s Week 4 game. The Tigers would be more likely to wait out a lengthy delay in Week 4 than Week 3.

“It changes the whole scenario,” Ansbro said.

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Is there a solution to the early-season weather delays? Depends on who you ask. Bradenton Herald file photo

The home team must also weigh a few factors.

Delaying the game to Saturday means the home school’s administrators must find people to staff the game and work another day themselves. Friday night games also bring in more revenue from ticket sales and concession stand sales than games on a Saturday.

Pushing the game back to the following Monday, which happens when teams are in a bind, means the visiting team has to find transportation again, the home team likely will have reduced revenue, and the athletes would face the physical demands of playing two varsity games in a five-day span.

Teams have incentive to play rather than cancel a delayed game because of the points system used to determine the playoff participants and because of revenue generated from games.

Once lightning has cleared, the head coaches will discuss how long to give players to warm up.

Lightning forced Braden River and Sarasota Riverview to clear the field ahead of their Week 2 game until 7:38 p.m. Braden River head coach Curt Bradley said he wanted 25 minutes for warm-ups and Riverview head coach Joshua Smithers wanted 15 minutes.

The two coaches met in the middle at 20 minutes, meaning the game kicked off at around 8 p.m., 30 minutes late, when including the coin flip and the captains’ pregame handshake.

If the two head coaches can’t agree on how long to warm up, the head official usually determines how long to give the players. If the players already have warmed up before the game, the warm-up period will be about five to 10 minutes, Collums said, and a maximum of 20 minutes if there weren’t pregame warm-ups.

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Teams have incentive to play rather than cancel a delayed game because of the points system used to determine the playoff participants and because of revenue generated from games. Tiffany Tompkins ttompkins@bradenton.com

Finding a fix

So, is there a solution to the early-season weather delays?

Bradley suggested an idea that he said has been floating around: a 12-week regular season, which would give teams another Friday in case they need to make up a game.

This would’ve come in handy two years ago when Hurricane Irma, which brought high winds and left more than 100,000 Manatee County residents without power, devastated the region in the midst of the high school football season.

That year, Bradley’s Pirates ended up playing three games in eight days.

“It’s a pain to try and schedule a Monday game or a Tuesday game and then come back (on Friday),” Bradley said. “It ends up messing up two or three weeks when it would be simpler to be like (during a lightning delay), ‘We’re not going to get this game in, and rather than playing midweek and getting no crowd and no gate, let’s go to Week 12 and go from there.’ ”

In Bradley’s suggested idea, teams that don’t need to make up a game and that qualified for the playoffs would have an idle week in Week 12, and teams that didn’t qualify for the playoffs would have their season end after Week 11.

Another possible solution would be to move early-season games from Friday nights to Saturday mornings, which makes some sense in an attempt to avoid weather delays, ABC7 meteorologist Bob Harrigan said.

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During August and September, a storm cell can pop up around game time or stall out near a stadium and wreak havoc. ttompkins@bradenton.com

The evening storms that delay Friday night games are caused by the interaction of winds coming from the east and winds coming west off the Gulf of Mexico, he said. The wind patterns that cause those storms are prevalent about 80 percent of the time, leading Harrigan to estimate the chance of storms in the late afternoon or early evening during the first few weeks of the football season to be 50 percent or greater.

An interaction of these breezes that leads to morning storms is prevalent only about 20 percent of the time, Harrigan said, which he estimated led to a chance of storms in the morning of about 30 percent.

Cold fronts start to disrupt the breeze coming off the Gulf of Mexico in mid-October, and perhaps earlier, Harrigan said. This stops those afternoon or evening storms about halfway through the season.

Although moving games to Saturday mornings likely would lead to fewer delays, Harrigan realizes that Saturday morning football doesn’t have the same ring as Friday night lights.

“I know there’s a lot of people who don’t want to do that,” Harrigan said. “They want to have their Friday night lights, Friday night football. Football is a big deal here. But as far as delays go, I would say there would be less in the morning on a Saturday than there would be on a Friday night.”

Ansbro adopted somewhat of a fatalist point of view when asked about moving early-season games to Saturday morning, something that would conflict with officials being able to work youth football games and require logistical hurdles for schools.

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There are still a few Friday nights to go before the weather should clear for good. Bradenton Herald file photo

“I have thought that at times, too,” Ansbro said. “You know what? I’ve been in this business 33 years. I can tell you I think I’ve seen it all. I’ve seen many weekends where it’s raining like heck Saturday morning.”

There are still a few Friday nights to go before the weather should clear for good. For Collums, it will be worth waiting through the early delays for the positives to come.

“When October rolls around, it’s like a breath of fresh air,” he said. “You don’t have to worry about the rain. You don’t have to worry about the lightning. You have much cooler nights, much more enjoyable nights. Officiating football in October is a lot of fun in Florida.”

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