• Virginia Tech's Homefield Farm

    The Ball in Their Court

    Student trainers & nutritionists collaborate with athletics for unique hands-on experiences

On the eve of the upcoming basketball season, Hunter Cattoor, a star guard on the Virginia Tech men’s basketball team, hopped onto the training table, waiting to get his ankle stretched and taped. Cole Stevenson, a student athletic trainer for the men’s basketball team, was there, ready to help.

Leg propped up on the table, Stevenson used a rubber strap to take Cattoor through a series of ankle stretches designed to maximize movement and flexibility while increasing strength.

Once fully stretched, Cattoor moved over to a balancing board, basketball in hand. Standing on one leg and using the hand opposite the leg on the ground, Cattoor and Stevenson practiced hand-eye coordination and balancing drills, passing the ball back and forth with one hand.

This interaction between Cattoor and Stevenson is symbolic of a partnership that is rare between athletics and academics at the upper echelon of Division 1 athletics and is a testament to the power of hands-on learning in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. More than 50 students from the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise gain experiences with all of Virginia Tech’s sports teams in all different facets, from being on the sidelines as a student trainer to fueling student-athletes in the classroom and on the court.

Video by Tim Skiles

This experience is invaluable, said Stevenson, who is majoring in the Science of Food, Nutrition, and Exercise.

“We get a chance to sit down and work hands-on with athletes,” Stevenson said. “This is what we’re at school for. This is an awesome partnership. I can’t imagine not having this opportunity to put into practice what we learn in the classroom.”

A slam dunk of a program

Both the nutrition and sports medicine student workers are an integral component of the services provided to Virginia Tech’s student-athletes, making up the full-court press HNFE provides athletics.

“Whether it's making recovery smoothies in the Oasis for our Olympic sport athletes, or providing on-field hydration during football practice, the sports nutrition and athletic training students are essential in helping our athletes maximize their performance,” said Alyson Onyon, senior director of sports nutrition for Virginia Tech Athletics.

This partnership with athletics began 21 years ago. In that time, students have seen the training rooms and learned firsthand from athletic trainers, physical therapists, physicians, and massage therapists.

“Students get to work with people doing the exact job that they're looking at going into, or expose them to something they might want to get into," said Mike Goforth (’95), the associate athletics director of sports medicine for football, and adjunct instructor in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise.

Inside the room where it happens is Hisham Ziyout (’19), the director of sports medicine for men’s basketball and Stevenson’s direct supervisor. Stevenson watched Ziyout tape the athletes before practice. To help prevent ankle injuries, Head Men’s Basketball Coach Mike Young requires all players to have their ankles taped before practice or games.

“Hisham does a great job teaching me what he’s doing as he does it,” Stevenson said. “It’s an incredible learning experience. He goes over the anatomy, what’s going on inside the body – basically everything I would need to know to treat someone.”

Let’s dance

Brenna Kiel stood on Carilion Court at Cassell Coliseum as basketballs bounced in the background and players did high knee exercises on the court before practice.

Being a student athletic trainer with the women’s basketball team has been her defining experience as a student. Working directly with Erin Cash (’07, ’09), the senior director of sports medicine for women’s basketball and tennis, Kiel has seen all the different roles of the health care continuum.

One of her favorite memories was going to both the Big Dance and ACC Tournament last year – the women’s team made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 15 years.

“It was such an awesome experience seeing the team I worked with win a game in the NCAA Tournament,” Kiel said.

Kiel wants to go to physician’s assistant school and earned patient care experience working with the women’s basketball team.

“Sometimes I forget that we’re a huge Division 1 program – amazingly, we’re able to do this,” Kiel said. “I’m grateful Virginia Tech has these opportunities.”

Swipe left for more

  • Image of John Ojiako on training table attended to by Stevenson.

    Stevenson attended to John Ojiako on the training table in the corner of the training room. Stevenson squeezed gel onto Ojiako’s knee to perform ultrasound therapy, a form of treatment that has a deep heating effect and could increase tissue regeneration, blood flow, and more.

  • Image of Kiel assisting Cayla King with stretches

    Kiel helped Cayla King stretch before practice. Kiel held one leg up at a time, giving just enough pressure to loosen the quads and hamstrings, taking the recommended 20 seconds of stretching per leg.

All the way to the three!

Avi Pelly looked up at the whiteboard as she walked into the football practice facility, ready to handle all the tasks of the day. Make smoothies for each player’s specific dietary needs? Check. Get the appropriate snacks stocked? Check. Prepare the football fuel bar? Check. No Hail Mary is needed here.

Carly Harris, the director of football sports nutrition, created the nutritional plan because every single thing that’s put into the players’ bodies impacts performance on and off the field and Pelly helps implement that plan.

“Everything we give them — even the snacks — makes a difference in the athletes' performances,” Pelly said. “I’ve been able to learn a lot from Carly about what to feed the athletes, when timing of specific snacks and meals is vital.”

In Michelle Rockwell’s (’97, ’99, ’19) first-year course on sports nutrition for HNFE students, Julia Whaley, a senior from Broadlands, Virginia, learned about what to eat pre-and post-exercise.

“I learned the timings of what should be eaten, when,” Whaley said. “An hour or more before practice and you should have more complex carbs, like oatmeal or bread. But if it’s right before practice, you want something that digests quickly – like fruit gummies.”

Sometimes, something tasty can still be nutritious. After a win, Pelly makes watermelon slushies for the players – something she first made over summer camp – as a reward. She said the players loved it over the summer and kept asking for it.

“I’m just happy to be a part of this,” said Pelly, a senior from Manasquan, New Jersey. “It takes a village to make the players successful. It makes me appreciate the work that’s put in by everyone that is a part of the team. I’m lucky to work with such amazing people.”

Elsewhere on the field, Claudia Putman, a senior student athletic training aide from Berryville, Virginia, worked exclusively with the defensive line group, performing taping, wrapping, and casting of her position group.

“In the training room, we do rehab treatment, such as modalities, stretching, and rehab anytime somebody is injured,” Putman said. “We help them with that by walking them through a rehab plan created by the athletic trainers.”

During the 2020 season, Putman worked with the team in challenging conditions and had a primary focus on keeping the players healthy.

“It was difficult, but I think that our team did a really good job of making an effort to keep people safe, sanitizing things, and ensuring the overall health of everyone in the program, not just athletes but also myself,” Putman said. “I was able to get hands-on experience instead of being remote. It gave me patient contact as well as human interaction during a highly stressful time.”

Whether dietetics or science of food, nutrition, and exercise, no student rides the bench in this department.