He’d run the same play just minutes before.

“We did the same play on the other side two plays earlier, and it had been a 20-yard gain on a pass, so we figured they’d bite again,” former Waseca quarterback Thomas O’Neil said last week, reflecting on the 2013 Section 2AAAA Championship game.

The Waseca High School football team was taking on section powerhouse Hutchinson and searching for ways to move the ball downfield against a capable Tigers defense.

Those defenders forced the mobile senior quarterback to put his celebrated footwork to the test early in the game, as the play that had eaten up much needed yards minutes earlier began to collapse.

“I went around a block and their guy kind of popped around the corner and got under my shoulder pad,” O’Neil said.

But while O’Neil is accustomed to taking hits thanks to his ability to move outside of the pocket, this knock felt different.

“It was more shock, I stayed in two or three plays and that didn’t go very well,” he said. “When I started walking back to the huddle I could feel my shoulder shifting, I could feel tendons pulling on each other, and then once I called the play, as I was walking up I could tell; I couldn’t even hold my hand up.”

Hutchinson’s trainer assessed O’Neil’s injury along with physical therapist Ryan Buchele, who works at Mayo Clinic Health Systems in Waseca.

“Buchele hopped out of the stands to come and help me,” O’Neil said. “He’s always got my back, [he’s] always helping me out.”

O’Neil had separated his shoulder, ending his football season and setting into motion a long recovery period for the Bluejays star quarterback.

Unfortunately, injuries like O’Neil’s are becoming increasingly common as high school athletes continue to up their speed and stature, but fortunately for the athletes at Waseca High School the Bluejays are working to keep pace.

Ahead of the curve

Athletic Director Joe Hedervare has taught and coached in Waseca for years, where local coaches and medical personnel have made strides toward preventing and treating athletic injuries as they occur.

“Ever since I started here as a teacher and as a coach 14 years ago we’ve had medical personnel on standby at football games, and at hockey games as well,” Hedervare said. “Our ambulance service in town is also always aware of our games. Sometimes they get pulled away if there is another medical emergency in town, but they are there if they can be there and are always on standby if something does happen.”

The school has also contracted with Mankato’s Orthopedic and Fracture Clinic to bring athletic trainers to football and soccer games, where they are also on standby to deal with injuries both large and small.

“Soccer had started it a few years back, and to me the safety and the health of our athletes is a big priority, so we decided to use some of the money that we have from fundraiser dollars from the football program,” Hedervare said. “To me that’s just money well spent.”

The Minnesota State High School League’s bylaws do not require medical personnel at sporting events, although the organization “strongly recommends the presence of certified medical personnel at all interscholastic games/contests,” per section 400.00 of the MSHSL handbook.

While larger schools frequently have full-time medical personnel on staff to deal with issues as they arise, smaller schools rarely have the budgetary freedom to seek them out.

“We’re kind of in the middle where we get a trainer to come in once a week, we hire someone to come to different events,” Hedervare said. “We may not always have the same trainer, and we’ve kind of looked at the costs, and the estimates were something like $30,000 to $40,000 [annually] to keep someone like that on staff full time, and that’s just a bit outside of our realm right now.”

From O’Neil’s standpoint, the care available at the clinic, as well as the systems put in place at Waseca High School, have worked wonders.

“Ryan [Buchele] and all of the people there know so much about what they’re doing,” O’Neil said. “Just the feeling of them telling me what to do, and then having it all pay off, it just keeps getting better and you keep gaining more and more confidence.”

For his part, Hedervare would like to see the school’s efforts expand beyond a weekly trainer.

“There are incidents where you’d really like to have more, but the biggest thing that sticks out is that we as coaches are on our own when we need to deal with these issues in practice,” he said. “Some of these coaches with full-time trainers, they get that medical expertise even in practice or in practice situations.”

Despite this, Waseca High School has found ways to compensate with a unique set of emergency action plans that cover each sport that the school offers.

“Say a kid goes down with dehydration in practice, we have an ambulance team, we have a team that calls 911, we have a team that goes and gets the defibrillator, we have someone to direct the ambulance when it gets here,” Hedervare said. Everyone has a role in that situation so that we handle it properly.”

Younger, faster, stronger

Physical therapist Josh Berndt has seen plenty of sports-related injuries during his time at the Mayo Clinic Health Systems in Waseca.

He isn’t the only one.

More than 1.35 million youth athletes were admitted to emergency departments across the country in 2012, according to data compiled by non-profit Safe Kids Worldwide, which culled its statistics from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s National Electronic Injury Surveillance System.

According to Berndt, the recent rash of youth athletic injuries can be traced directly to an increased desire to see youth athletes more closely shadow their older counterparts.

“In the last 20 years for example I think that we’ve seen a huge increase in the amount of organized sports offered at increasingly young ages,” Berndt said. “When I was a kid you had tee-ball and peewee, you met once or twice a week and you had a game here or there in the summer; that was it.”

Specialization and an increased workload, he says, are making athletics harder on developing muscles.

“I just think that the amount of organized youth sports has increased dramatically, and with that comes expectations of performance,” Berndt said. They want to play better, they want to play their great pitchers more often, when their anatomy isn’t able to withstand those demands, I think we’re beginning to see some of the effects of that looking at injury trends.”

Berndt cited the motion of a youth baseball pitcher as a prime example of the increasing demands placed upon youth athletes, an instance where improper form and developing muscles can lead to disastrous results.

“The overhead pitch is a pretty violent mechanism, there’s a lot of stress and strain applied throughout the shoulder and elbow, and kids at early ages don’t have proper technique, they don’t have proper form or instruction, and certain violent motions will expose their shoulder or their arm to increased stresses,” Berndt said. “They also don’t have strength throughout their system such as their legs and their core, so that strain is being placed on shoulders and ligaments.”

A great way to ensure that youth athletes are well developed, says Berndt, is to continue to diversify their athletic schedules.

I think that the best advice that I could give to parents, to coaches, to young people who are participating, is to be very diverse,” he said. “Don’t specialize in one sport at the age of 6 and play that all year round. Going from say soccer to baseball to basketball, your body is going to have different demands put on different joints.”

According to O’Neil, who competed in football, basketball and track and field, his status as a three-sport athlete was vital in his recovery.

“If I wasn’t playing basketball I would have come out, I would have been sluggish, but I had [coaches Monte Dufault and Todd Dufault] encouraging me to get back at it,” he said. “It felt like you had something to look forward to.”

O’Neil was back on the court for the basketball season with a healthy shoulder, earning an honorable mention for the all-conference team, while helping the Waseca High School track and field team to a second-place finish at the Class A track and field championships.

Because while athletic injuries have become far more common, Waseca area athletes are in capable hands.

Reach Sports Editor Ryan Lund at 837-5447, or follow him on Twitter @WCNSports.

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