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By Jack Dougherty, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The college soccer season is a grind, and players rely on their coaching staff more than ever to keep their minds and bodies in tip top shape throughout the year.
The head coach and assistants surely aid players by pushing them when they can handle it and dialing it back when they've clearly had enough, but coaches have far too much on their plates to be worried about each and every player's bodies on a daily basis.
That's where the duo of Andra Thomas and Rhian Davis come in for Penn State women's soccer.
Thomas and Davis keep track of the team's physical and mental fitness day in and day out so that head coach Erica Dambach and company can focus on scouting and game planning.
"There's a lot of years that that support staff can make or break you," Dambach said. "You look at the dynamic of this staff and first and foremost you love coming to work every day, so from a personal standpoint they make my day much better."
Thomas is the Associate Director of Athletic Training Services for the team and has been at Penn State since 1992. She has worked with the women's basketball, men's and women's golf, softball, and men's and women's soccer teams during her tenure.
Her duties span from conducting yoga sessions with the team to working rehab with injured players.
Thomas spent four years with the women's soccer team from 2008-2012 and returned for a second stint at the start of last season. She said coming back to the team was one of the best decisions she's made in her professional career.
"That was the absolute best year that I've ever had with a team," Thomas said. "They were the most enthusiastic to do anything and everything that I asked, and they completely bought in. They're the easiest group I have ever had to work with. I love working with them."
Thomas said her favorite part of the job is rehabbing players who deal with injuries. She prides herself in bringing players from a sense of hopelessness to becoming a stronger and more skilled version of themselves before the injury.
Over 25 years, Thomas has been through a plethora of changes in regards to the way training staffs track player fitness. She said the various technology the team is able to use today helps her immensely with her job.
"The amount of data that we can get on kids right then and there to be able to assess injuries and better see how we can get them ready--it's a night and day as compared to 25 years ago," Thomas said.
One of the most prominent ways the team is tracking fitness this year is a cell phone app called Fit for 90.
Fit for 90 tracks how players are feeling on different scales--mentally and physically. It can tell players if they're sore, fatigued or sleep deprived based on the info they input to the app.
For Thomas and Davis, the team's strength and conditioning coach, the app helps them diagnose a hurt body part as a serious injury or simply soreness from training. It can tell them when to hold certain players out of practice by giving them a readiness score for each player.
"First and foremost we always make sure that our program has injury prevention in it," Davis said. "That's the most important for me. Strength in terms of muscle weight is important, but it's not everything."
Davis has been with Penn State since 2013 and oversees both the women's soccer and softball teams. She also worked as an assistant strength and conditioning coach at Rice University and Jacksonville University.
She said seeing scrawny and somewhat out-of-shape freshman turn into to mentally and physically strong players on and off the field is what keeps her going. She said she loves seeing the team's work in the weight room translate to the field.
"My favorite thing is when we're not the biggest kid out there, but the big kids bounce off of us," Davis said. "I think that has a lot to do with the culture that spread to this program through Erica and the rest of the staff in that our kids hit the ground running as hard as they can, and they're not going to fall down. If you're going to hit them it better be a really hard hit and even if they do fall down they're going to get right back up."
Both Thomas and Davis may not be in the spotlight like players and head coaches are every week, but their work never goes unappreciated, especially by the players.
"They're so important to the team, especially with all the prevention stuff and flexibility things that we do I think it's made a world wind of change, not just with soccer but in everyday life," Salina Williford said.
"The players believe in them," Dambach said. "They trust them. They want to go seek out their help and guidance and there's no healthier environment you could create than the one they have created."