By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Last August, Hailey McNee was on the visiting sideline as the University of Nebraska at Kearney volleyball team defeated Wyoming in four sets.
The exhibition match jump-started a dream season for the Lopers, whose only loss came in the NCAA Division II national championship.
Ten months later, McNee is back in the Cowboy State, ready to live out another dream.
The 25-year-old UNK graduate starts her new job this week as a full-time athletic trainer with the University of Wyoming Athletic Department. It’s a remarkable accomplishment for someone who’s just beginning their career.
“Most people don’t go from Division II to Division I right away,” said Bill Murphy, associate athletic director for sports medicine at UNK. “It’s pretty hard to get into that Division I bubble, so for her to get that position right out of graduate school is kind of a big deal.”
Typically, major collegiate sports programs are looking for athletic trainers with several years of experience. Wyoming was no exception. The hiring team preferred candidates who had already worked at the Division I level, but they couldn’t ignore McNee’s background.
A native of Bentonville, McNee played volleyball at Southern Arkansas University and earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Central Arkansas, where she received the Moonlight Graham Sports Medicine Award presented to the top students in the athletic training program.
McNee was a certified athletic trainer when she arrived at UNK in summer 2018 to pursue a Master of Arts in Education in physical education exercise science, a program designed for students interested in fitness, performance, wellness, injury prevention, rehabilitation and related careers.
In addition to her classroom training, McNee gained hands-on experience as a graduate assistant athletic trainer working with Loper volleyball and softball.
Over the past two years, she spent countless hours in the training room and attended nearly every practice and game – home and away – as part of a sports medicine team focused on preventing and treating injuries.
“I worked with amazing programs and amazing staffs,” McNee said. “They have the best interests of the student-athletes in mind and really push everybody to be the best they can be.”
McNee called her graduate assistantship “invaluable” because it gave her the opportunity to apply classroom knowledge in a real-world setting while interacting with coaches, student-athletes and professionals in the athletic training field. She also spent a semester with UNK’s sports performance and strength training program.
“You can’t get those experiences everywhere, working with high-level teams in competitive atmospheres,” she said.
That clinical time is critical for young athletic trainers, according to Murphy, who is entering his 26th year at UNK.
“The more experience and more exposure to different sports they have, the better off clinicians will be in the future,” he said. “And Hailey certainly had that experience.”
McNee wasn’t the only beneficiary from this relationship. She added value to the sports medicine program, too.
“She truly understood the athlete side of things and was really smart and gifted in her sports medicine abilities,” Murphy said. “She was a great fit to take care of our student-athletes.”
UNK head volleyball coach Rick Squiers uses the phrase “wise beyond her years” to describe the former GA.
She was knowledgeable and professional when interacting with student-athletes, he said, something that can be difficult when you’re so close in age.
“We were in good hands,” Squiers said.
At Wyoming, McNee will work primarily with the Cowgirl volleyball team, which is coming off back-to-back seasons with 20-plus wins.
“They’re building a program that’s definitely on the way up,” she said. “I’m very excited to be part of this program and its future.”
The outdoor enthusiast is also excited about the area’s recreational activities, including hiking, snowboarding and skiing. She plans to use her master’s degree to expand her career into teaching and strength and conditioning down the line.
“I know I couldn’t do all of this alone,” McNee said. “I’m really thankful for UNK and the opportunity I got there.”
MASTER OF ATHLETIC TRAINING
Beginning in fall 2020, students must earn a master’s degree from an accredited professional athletic training education program before they’re eligible to take the Board of Certification exam.
In anticipation of this change, UNK added a Master of Athletic Training degree in fall 2018 that prepares students for careers in professional athletic training.
Students who enroll in the program have two separate avenues to complete the degree. They can complete a five-year undergraduate/graduate professional program, or a traditional post-baccalaureate two-year graduate program.
Upon completion of the academic curriculum and clinical experience, students are eligible to sit for the Board of Certification exam.