MONTVILLE, Conn. — As the school year was ending in June, Montville High School Athletic Director Walt Sherwin got a call out of the blue.
Lawrence and Memorial Hospital in New London was pulling out of the athletic training business. The school would have to look elsewhere for training services in the fall.
Trainers are essential to any school athletic program. Dr. Anthony Alessi, a Norwich-based neurologist who has worked with high school, college and professional athletes, says athletic trainers are a necessity when it comes to the high-velocity sports — football, ice hockey and boy's lacrosse.
"If you don't have the money for an athletic trainer, you shouldn't have a program," Alessi said.
He said athletic trainers are important for other sports as well, such as soccer, which may not be high-velocity, but has a high injury rate.
In addition to Sherwin, athletic directors at Ledyard, Stonington, New London, East Lyme, and Old Lyme high schools, plus Mitchell College and UConn-Avery Point relied on L&M for trainers. Each school was charged $15,000 or less per year for a full-time trainer. Stonington, which had been with L&M for 15 years, was paying only $8,000.
"It came down to a business decision. We were subsidizing the program to keep it going and the numbers didn't work," L&M spokesman Michael O'Farrell said.
"(Lawrence and Memorial) was doing an injustice to the profession" to provide the service at such a low cost, said Janeen Beetle, the head trainer of Norwich Free Academy and a member of the Norwich Orthopedic Group. "Our value is a lot more. An athletic trainer is not just anybody."
Athletic trainers must go through a four-year accredited program, put in 1,000 hours of on-the-job training and take an exam before they can be licensed and certified in Connecticut. They also must take continuing education courses to maintain that certification.
"I know it's an overused word, but (athletic trainers) are priceless," Beetle said.
Schools that needed trainers were left scrambling to find qualified health support for their programs at a price that didn't break a budget that was already set.
Stonington athletic director Bryan Morrone, like Sherwin, had been in negotiations with L&M on a long-term contract with provisions for the schools to pay more. In Montville's case, the cost was going up 30 percent.
"We were totally blindsided and with a set budget, we didn't have a lot of wiggle room," Morrone said.
O'Farrell said there really was no good time for the hospital to make the decision.
"I gave myself a target deadline of mid-August and I decided to sign a contract with Norwich Orthopedic and they have been wonderful in this whole process," Ledyard athletic director and football coach Jim Buonocore said.
It will cost Ledyard High more and it will be getting an average 12 ½ hours of trainer coverage each week, not including the home football games, a "serviceable" amount to keep athletes cared for, Buonocore said.
Sherwin also signed up with the Norwich group for 630 hours of coverage for the school year; most coming in the fall, less in the winter and even less come the spring, non-contact, sports.
Morrone signed a contract on Monday for 10 hours of coverage a week with the Physical Therapy and Sports Medicine Center, which also covers Waterford and Fitch in Groton. It will cost Stonington $1,000 more than the full-time coverage previously offered by L&M.
New London is still looking.
First-year athletic director Steve Cravinho walked into the problem and has temporarily settled it with the Athletic Training Solutions Group. That group works like an official's board, a school calls and they send someone out. The New London deal is good only for Friday night's home game against Killingly.
"It's complicated with the budget. We have to go through a bidding process and get quotes, but it's for the well-being of our kids," Cravinho said.
"I can't tell you how vital the services of an athletic trainer are, both medically and competitively," Dr. Jeff Manning, of Sports Medicine Associates in Danielson, said. "Without one, participating in sports is not as safe and not as enjoyable for the athlete."
Sherwin, the Montville athletic director, has seen the evolution of athletic training. He was head of an athletic department at a high school in Delaware where he glimpsed "the perfect world."
On staff at the high school was a health/physical education teacher who also was a certified trainer and served as such for the athletic department. When he left Delaware for Virginia, Sherwin took advantage of a new concept — student trainers. The local hospital provided a mentor and high school students, who had an interest in the medical field, served as the trainers.
"That was 20 years ago; there was no such thing as liability back then," Sherwin said.
It was how Alessi got his start in the medical field. He was a football player who was injured in his sophomore year at Mount St. Michael Academy in Bronx, N.Y. Instead of playing, he became the trainer and the school cut his tuition in half. He paid his way through college in a similar manner.
"Working as an athletic trainer then and now is not the same category, it's much more sophisticated, much more complicated," Alessi said.
Alessi compares the role of athletic trainers to that of the "loss leader" that lures shoppers into stores. The role of an athletic trainer is to care for the student-athlete, a community service for the most part, but it's the follow-up that nets the provider money — the surgical and rehabilitation services.
"No one has run the numbers, but theoretically, that's how it works," Manning said. "I don't know if it plays out, but the increased visibility means the potential for downstream revenue."
In Windham County, Day Kimball Hospital in Putnam underwrites the services of Mike Taylor, the trainer for Woodstock Academy and Tourtellotte Memorial High School in Thompson. Manning also advises most the Windham County schools in the non-operative care of sports injuries. The only exceptions are Ellis Tech in Danielson and Putnam High.
Putnam is part of the Quinebaug Valley football cooperative with Ellis Tech and Tourtellotte, and there is provision for a trainer at games. Otherwise, if there is an emergency Putnam does things the old-fashioned way — it dials 911.
"It worries me, It would be nice to have a trainer, but it all comes down to finances," first-year athletic Putnam director Rick Konieczny said. "That's something I plan to champion for next year."
Information from: Norwich Bulletin, http://www.norwichbulletin.com