First-year trainers find motivation in Panther athletes’ success


By Keith Sparks

2017 was a year of transition for Liberty Hill athletics in more ways than one. As LHISD introduced a new Athletic Director for the first time in almost 20 years, the athletic training department was introduced to a new Head Athletic Trainer for the first time in just as long.

Melissa Harrington stepped up to the plate following her husband, Doc Harrington’s, departure. After she took over, she brought two new trainers to her staff in Mathew Donello and Susan Slagle, both of whom are brand new to athletic training as a full-time job.

According to Harrington, the hardest part of that transition for a first-year trainer is giving up personal time, especially when the athletic program is as successful as Liberty Hill’s.

“It’s managing your time and managing the, “Man, I just wish I could have the weekend off, but I can’t,” so I think that’s the hardest part, knowing that your time is not your own,” Harrington said. “Your time is dedicated to kids and coaches and all the sports and things going on. They’ve adjusted well, and when something’s rescheduled and they had something planned, they take it in stride. It sucks, because we have to reschedule our plans, but it is what it is, because kids come first.”

With the Panthers’ athletic success comes playoff berths, thus extending each season. Although it means more work for the trainers, Donello, who helps Harrington at the high school, said that level of success makes the job exponentially more fun.

“A lot of our teams have been pretty successful, so it’s been pretty busy for the most part, because we’re traveling a lot of places and going to a lot of playoff games and all those things,” Donello said. “That makes it fun for us, because we get to go see a lot of cool places and get to see our kids compete at a pretty high level.”

Slagle, who works primarily with the athletes at Liberty Hill Junior High, has enjoyed the fact that a high level of athletic success means the trainers get to take that journey, as well.

“Obviously, when your teams are going to State Championships, or are on the road to State, you want to do as much as you can to help those athletes get there, but it also makes it more fun for us, because we get to go on that journey with the athletes, as well,” Slagle said.

Coming into a program as successful as Liberty Hill’s, Donello said it’s imperative that he has the same mindset as the athletes and coaches. If they;re showing up to campus every day, willing to work as hard as they do to make deep postseason runs, so must the trainers.

“I think it’s kind of something that every school needs is an athletic trainer that kind of has the same mindset,” Donello said. “When you go to a school with such high expectations, you need a trainer with the mindset that we’re trying to win. I think it’s important for the athletic trainer to adopt that same mindset, because if the kids and coaches are expecting high things, you have to expect the trainers to be on board with that, also. I think when you’re in pressure situations like that or have high expectations like that, it makes our job a little bit more fun. When you get to see the kids and the coaches succeed like they do, it makes everybody happier.”

As two young professionals who are new to full-time athletic training, Slagle and Donello have learned to rely on each other as they go through the same struggles at the same time.

“I think for me and Matt, it helps that we’re both coming in at the same time, because we have each other to lean on when we’re learning everything, and we’re both the same age, so that definitely helps, as well,” Slagle said.

Although Donello and Slagle are new to the profession, Harrington is far from it. Slagle has the advantage of having worked with Harrington as a contract employee before taking a full-time position in Liberty Hill, which she said has helped her tremendously with the transition.

“Any transition for an athletic trainer is going to be difficult, but having someone you know and someone you’ve worked with before definitely makes it a lot easier,” Slagle said. “It’s a lot easier to adjust when you trust the person that you work with.”

Donello wasn’t afforded the same luxury, but said Harrington’s extensive experience as an athletic trainer has made the transition easier for him, and so has the coaches’ support.

“I think Mrs. H and her experience has kind of helped all of us,” Donello said. “Me and Susan are both somewhat kind of fresh to the profession, so I think having her experience has always been really helpful. We have some really good coaches here, and they always work with us and support us, so it makes everything pretty easy on our part to just kind of get on board and do what we need to do.”

When it comes down to it, the trainers’ number one responsibility is to be there for Liberty Hill athletes, and each of them said the Panthers have treated them with nothing but respect.

“I love the kids that I work with,” Slagle said. “They make my job very enjoyable and fun. I take a lot of pride in watching them succeed. Everybody in Liberty Hill has always been very welcoming, and that is very true with the kids, as well.”

According to Donello, the Panther athletes’ dedication to their craft is what motivates him to work hard for each and every one of them.

“The kids are really cool,” Donello said. “They have high expectations, like you said. They want to compete in Regionals, they want to compete at State, so having those expectations for themselves makes them a lot of fun to be around, because they’re really competitive and they’re not just here to kind of mess around. They’re here to go accomplish a goal and see that goal achieved, so that makes our job a lot of fun.”