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Rancho Cotate High School in Rohnert Park on Saturday launched what backers are calling the most comprehensive concussion awareness program among high school athletic programs in Sonoma County.

Scores of athletes in fall sports, including cheerleaders, began baseline concussion testing and underwent an education component on symptoms, dangers and recovery times.

"We are basically saying it's mandated," Rancho Cotate Assistant Principal Angela Scardina said. "If you are going to be an athlete at Rancho Cotate High School, you are taking this baseline test. We are taking it serious."

Volleyball and boys and girls soccer players took the test Saturday, and football players are scheduled to take the approximately 40-minute computerized test this week.

The testing program — which was purchased for $750 to cover all of Rancho's athletes — captures an athlete's reaction time to a series of questions. A student suspected of having sustained a head injury will be required to retake the test to provide comparison reaction times.

"The education is key because attitudes toward concussions are changing," said Dr. Ty Affleck, who heads Santa Rosa Sports and Family Medicine and is a part of the nonprofit group North Coast Concussion Management that helped administer the tests Saturday.

"When the athlete says, 'No, I'm tougher than this; I'm going back in,' it's their teammate that is going to say, 'Your brain is more important,'" he said.

"Do you think you are a benefit to your team when your reaction time is off and you are not sure what you are doing, but you want to be there?" he said. "Is that helpful to your team?"

The concussion management group was established last spring and is made up of doctors, athletic trainers, parents and others who are volunteering time to educate athletes, coaches and parents about symptoms and strategies.

"That is my goal — to educate the parents as well," said Sachi Woods, a member of the management group and mother of a Rancho Cotate volleyball player. "The parents have to be the ones who say, 'I know it's the middle of the game, but my child is clearly injured.'"

Rancho Cotate's program is expected to be followed by Santa Rosa City Schools, where a plan to have certified athletic trainers assigned to each of the five comprehensive high schools was stalled at the start of the school year. But officials from Sonoma County's largest school district are still pushing for baseline tests to be administered to athletes in contact sports by the end of September.

Casa Grande and Petaluma have certified athletic trainers assigned to their sports teams, and El Molino and Analy high schools have tested their football squads, but officials said Saturday that Rancho's "all athletes tested" policy, as well as the education component prior to the test, is groundbreaking.

Concussions present a conundrum because they do not always present overt symptoms despite sometimes devastating results, especially if a second concussion is sustained before the first one heals.

"Younger brains are more susceptible because they are still developing pathways, and developing pathways are much more susceptible to injury," Affleck said.

Students and coaches acknowledged that athletes can be poor patients if they want to return to a game or not lose a spot in the starting lineup if they admit to potentially having symptoms of a concussion that could sideline them for days, or even weeks.

"When I was growing up, it was known as a stinger or getting your bell rung," said Chris Howard, Rancho's junior varsity girls soccer coach. "We knew, 'You get back in the game.'"

But today, Howard says, required coach's training has educated him on what damage increasingly physical play can have on a young athlete's brain.

"It kind of opens your eyes up as a coach," he said.

He has learned to read athletes — those who don't look quite right but who may be reluctant to admit it.

"With the years of experience I've got under my belt, I understand that it's only a game. It's not the World Cup," he said.

Rancho Cotate volleyball player Emily Pavlos said she did not know that concussions rarely cause a loss of consciousness.

"This was good," she said of the training. "Especially since some of the symptoms are subtle."

Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671, kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @benefield.