Game changer: STHS Sports Medicine program provides positive impact for students, athletes
It’s Friday night at Viking Stadium and South Tahoe is entrenched in a battle on the gridiron. The whistle blows following a play, but not everyone gets up — an injured Viking remains on the turf in need of assistance.
Suddenly, a group of student trainers rushes onto the field to assess the injury — and gains valuable hands-on experience while providing the injured athlete with high-level diagnosis and treatment. The scene mirrors that of college athletics, but it’s not — it’s the Sports Medicine program at STHS in action.
“All these student trainers are getting educational experience, but they’re also providing medical coverage for our athletic teams,” program director Isaiah Tannaci said. “A lot of it is just being available in case something happens — a majority of the time, it’s just about being there.”
South Tahoe’s Sports Medicine program has become an invaluable resource for both students and athletes at the school. Currently in its second year, the program is housed on campus in a $5.2 million facility with state-of-the-art resources and equipment, which marked the completion of Measure G when it opened in 2013.
“What we’re doing with the program because of our facilities is unique — there’s no high school in the country that has anything close to this,” Tannaci said. “Because we have this, the curriculum is a lot more.”
For students, that curriculum offers a three-year program that allows for exploration of a potential career in sports medicine or a related field. Students that started in the program as sophomores two years ago will be able to complete the curriculum prior to graduation when they take Sports Medicine 3 classes first offered during the 2015-16 school year.
“The program is designed to expose them to as many different career paths as possible, then give them a foundation to understand what it is and the ability to delve a little more into it,” Tannaci said.
The program started with Sports Medicine 1 in 2013, and the popularity led to a waiting list for classes. In 2013-14, the program had 180 students — the first year involves basic coverage of medicine and athletics, including pre-physical therapy, emergency and fitness.
A third of those students moved onto Sports Medicine 2 this past school year, where they graduated to the role of student trainers with classroom and hands-on experience. The program had 110 students split between the two phases during the 2014-15 school year, and trainers combined to provide 1,200 hours of coverage at sporting events.
Sports Medicine 3 will make its debut next year, allowing students to complete the coursework. Tannaci described the third year of the program as a capstone class that will include creating and implementing injury prevention and offseason conditioning programs for Vikings’ athletes and teams.
“The biggest thing is the comfort level and familiarity with lots of different sports,” Tannaci said. “They’re getting a better general knowledge of athletics and potential injuries in each sport.”
Tannaci said the goal of the three-year program is for students to finish it with enough experience and qualifications to be hired as a physical therapy aid. Should a student pursue a fourth year in sports medicine at the high school, they would gain professional experience before graduation as part of a work-study program.
“The goal of it is career exploration, but also to give them the tools so they can hit the ground running,” said Tannaci, who has nearly two decades of experience in the field and was head trainer for the U.S. Men’s Ski Team from 1998-2002.
For South Tahoe athletes, the Sports Medicine program offers unmatched facilities and treatment. Student trainers covered 400 athletic events during the 2014-15 school year, providing everything from pregame treatment and injury prevention to assisting injured players at practices and games.
“It has really contributed to our athletics program and enriched it in so many ways — if we didn’t have it, we wouldn’t be as well off as we are right now,” STHS athletic director Tony Sunzeri said. “I’m grateful to not have to worry about our athletes, knowing that their safety is first and foremost and that their health is being taken care of.”
Mason Cain sees the benefits of the program from both perspectives. As a student, the rising junior just completed his second year in the program — as an athlete, the Div. I-A All-State second team quarterback has spent the offseason rehabbing a knee injury sustained during the winter.
“It’s really extreme in the way that they do things because I’ve learned so much more outside of the classroom,” Cain said. “I respect it as a student because it gave me a whole new outlook on what college can look like, and now going through rehab it has helped me tremendously because I know what I can and cannot do.”
Cain’s involvement with the program has opened his eyes to a potential career path involved with sports medicine. Getting the chance to learn from the experience Tannaci and athletic trainer Andy Borah, Cain is one of many students in the program that sees a future in the field.
“It’s showing them there’s this other world out there that they never know where it could take them,” Tannaci said. “I never even imagined being a teacher, but it’s a pretty great job in the sense that I get to come to work every day and I get to teach and inspire other people to do things in their lives that are life-changing.”
While a handful of high schools throughout the nation offer sports medicine curriculum, South Tahoe’s program is set apart because of its facilities.
The 8,100-square-foot building — modeled after facilities at Stanford University — has a main area with training tables, a fitness side with treadmills and workout equipment, and a SwimEx pool used for aquatic therapy.
“The facilities are amazing and definitely attractive,” Tannaci said. “The ability for us to treat multiple athletes at the same time is definitely unique.”
The building’s price tag included money to buy new, top-of-the-line equipment — including four Game Ready machines that use cold therapy for injury treatment and recovery. Tannaci handpicked the equipment after a visit to the U.S. Ski Team’s training center at Utah Olympic Park.
“It’s better coverage for the student athletes at the high school to be able to be healthier, play longer and play better — and in the long run that should correlate into better athletic success,” Tannaci said.
As it continually develops, South Tahoe’s Sports Medicine program will have a lasting impact — both locally and globally. Tannaci said its true value will emerge once students graduate from the program.
“For student trainers to be able to help other programs over time will be a defining factor of the program more than anything else,” Tannaci said. “It will become part of the culture of the school.”
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