Shea Alheit ’21, ’23 MSAT has always loved baseball. “When I was playing Little League, I refused to switch from baseball to softball,” the second-year Master of Science in Athletic Training student from Chesapeake, Virginia, said.
“I used to dream I would be the first girl in Major League Baseball.”
Eventually, Alheit did switch to softball, a sport that — at least in part — led her to the University of Lynchburg, where she was a member of the Hornets’ softball team. The other thing that attracted her to Lynchburg was its Doctor of Physical Therapy program.
In high school, a friend on Alheit’s travel softball team told her she had committed to play softball at Lynchburg and also planned to pursue the DPT. “I told my mom about [that] and from then on it was kind of a done deal, especially after taking a tour,” Alheit said.
“At the end of the day, I was going to school to get an education — to get a job — so that was my main focus, but the opportunity to continue playing the sport I loved really sold it for me.”
At Lynchburg, Alheit earned a bachelor’s degree in exercise physiology and played second and third base for the softball team — when she wasn’t injured, that is. Plagued by injuries, she spent a lot of time in the athletic training clinic. That, as it turned out, was a blessing in disguise.
“I came into college wanting to be a physical therapist, to help athletes return to the sport that they love, like PTs that helped me,” Alheit said. “After a season-ending injury, I spent a lot of time with my athletic trainer. He helped me get through a difficult time with his support and care. After that, I felt athletic training was a better fit for me.”
One of her junior-year classes, Introduction to Athletic Training with Dr. Debbie Bradney, also helped cement Alheit’s decision. “Between that and the experience I had with my injury and athletic trainer, by Thanksgiving break I had officially decided to apply to MSAT programs and not DPT,” she said.
“In making this decision, I spent time discussing the pros and cons with Dr. Bradney. She always tells you how it is and gives all the information she can to help you make a decision for yourself.”
This past spring, Alheit finally got back on the baseball diamond — well, sort of. She applied for an internship with the Professional Baseball Athletic Trainers Society and secured one with the Hillcats, a Minor League Baseball team affiliated with the Cleveland Guardians.
The Hillcats are based in Lynchburg, which was a bonus, because Alheit was doing a clinical rotation with the University of Lynchburg’s baseball team. “I didn’t travel with [the Hillcats] for numerous reasons, but [it] worked well because I could continue my clinical rotation with Lynchburg Baseball when the Hillcats were away,” she said.
As a young woman in a male-dominated sport, Alheit admitted it was “a little scary at first.” There also was the language barrier to contend with, as many of the players are from Latin America and the Caribbean. Everything worked out, though.
“The guys were really accepting of me,” she said. “My biggest struggle was the language barrier … but I began to pick up phrases to be able to communicate a little with them. I essentially did everything I would at a clinical rotation.
“I would stretch players, set them up on therapeutic modalities, provide soft-tissue manipulation, give them rehab exercises for very minor injuries, cover wounds, etc. Pretty much everything an athletic trainer does.”
The Hillcats played six days a week, with all of the week’s games either at home or away. Alheit was in the dugout for the team’s home games, and as the season progressed, she took on more responsibilities.
She also started to get kudos from the team’s head athletic trainer. “I created a ton of connections and bonds with players and staff members over the five months,” Alheit said. “As time went on, I was able to do more and more, to the point that [he] was able to handle all the desk work and I did most of the hands-on work for home stands.
“He said numerous times what a huge difference — in a good way — home and away stands were, with home stands being a lot smoother and easier. It was a grind, and there were stressful days and days when no one wanted to be there, but at the end of the day, there was always something positive.”
By the end of the season, Alheit also had nailed down her career goals: be an athletic trainer for a Major League Baseball team. “To some capacity, I want to work in professional baseball, as part of the sports medicine team,” she said. “My dream job would be to be the head AT for the Yankees or Dodgers.”
She added that the internship experience “made me a better athletic training student and will make me a better athletic trainer. I began in April, with a love for baseball, with a desire to work in it. I left with the same, if not stronger feelings, with the addition of certainty that this is truly what I want to do with my life.”
In November, Alheit attended the 2022 Game-Changing Concepts Baseball Sports Medicine Conference. Her trip to New York was funded, in part, by a scholarship she received from the Professional Baseball Athletic Trainers Society.
At the conference, which was sponsored by the Foundation for Orthopaedic Research and Education, MLB team doctors did presentations and hosted a panel discussion. Even more important, Alheit said, she had the opportunity to network with MLB medical professionals.
“Networking was my favorite part,” she said. “I introduced myself to Cleveland’s team physicians and we were able to talk about the club’s season and my experience with the Hillcats.
“I connected with one of the Yankees’ physical therapists, who then introduced me to their Double-A and Triple-A athletic trainers. … There were so many people I talked to, including other athletic training scholarship students.
“As a typically awkward person, conversation and connecting in this environment was much easier, especially with being able to talk about my experience with the Hillcats. Overall, this experience was very beneficial and super cool.”