Casey Nevarez took a collision to the head and opened up a cut during a January game at Española Valley High School.
What happened next to the McCurdy basketball player was a sight familiar to any athlete who takes a fall, hit, sprain, twist or cut at any sporting event at the high school: athletic trainer Celina Velasquez comes over ready to help.
Velasquez got Nevarez stitched up (with a big patch on his forehead he wore the rest of the weekend) and got him back to the bench for the rest of the game.
“Honestly, if it happened at McCurdy, I’d probably have to go to the hospital right away,” Nevarez said. “I wouldn’t be able to sit and support my team.”
Velasquez has been a steady presence at Española Valley for the last three years, treating athletes from any team for any injury. Not every school, even larger schools like Española Valley, have a full-time athletic trainer, and the Sundevils feel blessed by her presence.
“We’re really fortunate to have her,” said Española athletic director Matt Abeyta. “She does so much for the department and for all the student-athletes at Española Valley.”
Her interest in sports medicine started in high school. She suffered a torn ACL (three in fact, spread between two knees) and during her recovery, bonded with the athletic trainer at the time, Ralph Trujillo.
“My injuries really led me to the field,” Velasquez said. “I knew I wanted to be in the medical field, so athletic training was going to be the best way for me to go. I’m around sports and still in the medical field. It was the best of both worlds.”
Now, Velasquez feels a special bond with athletes that suffer knee injuries. She mentioned Garrett May, a basketball player who missed his entire senior year of basketball, and his sister Unica who hopes to return late in her senior year after her own knee injury.
The first knee injury happened in her first varsity basketball game. As a result of her injuries, her playing time was limited in high school, until she finally had a chance to play her senior year in 2015-16.
The highlight of her career came on Feb. 2, 2016, in a game against Bernalillo. In a 92-20 win, she knocked down 10 3-pointers in a game, a school record, and tied for the sixth-most in New Mexico history.
“One of the highlights of my life,” she said. “A lot of the people I see at the games remember me for it.”
Velasquez went to college at New Mexico State University, where they offered a three-year program in athletic training that she joined after her freshman year (according to the school website, the program is transitioning into a master’s degree program). There, she gained experience traveling with sports teams, including football and basketball. Then, she passed a test for clinical certification.
The timing was perfect. Right after she graduated in the spring of 2020, her high school was looking for an athletic trainer. She got a phone call from Ira Harge, Jr., the athletic director at the time, who said he heard she was graduating, and that they needed a trainer.
“I really didn’t apply for it,” Velasquez said. “I accepted it right away, not really thinking anything of it. And then I ended up falling in love with my job.”
Now, with Nicole Romero — her best friend in high school who started a few months later as the volleyball coach and athletic department secretary — the two of them are often everywhere together at sports events, and support each other while handling whatever necessary. Velasquez even picked up a driving certification, and helped drive teams in the spring.
Velasquez started in June 2020, which presented its own sort of challenges. For the first several months, with remote schooling and no sports action, her focus was mostly on establishing policies and procedures and securing equipment.
Then, suddenly, in March 2021 teams hastily returned to full action while trying to play hectic seasons through the spring in every sport, thrusting Velasquez into action. She had to balance normal athletic training duties with COVID-19 requirements, like symptom checking and vaccination status tracking.
Now, she has double duty with a hybrid program at Southwest University of Naprapathic Medicine in Santa Fe, studying soft tissues and joints in a three-year program.
At first, Velasquez planned to stay for a year before going to physical therapy school, she said. But she fell in love with the students and the work, and three years later has no plans to leave.
Velasquez can be seen at almost any game or practice at the high school — which can often have long hours with a game one night and a practice early the next morning. She travels as much as she can, and to every football game. She even helps as almost an assistant coach with the volleyball team.
“The kids love having her around,” said Española football coach Tylon Wilder. “She takes care of their injuries and keeps them momentum.”
Abeyta even wanted to nominate her for an award, until he saw that it required five years of experience. She certainly, in his view, fit all of the other qualifications despite her youth.
One of the hardest parts of the job is a requirement to “be the bad guy” sometimes. Like when the quarterback suffers a head injury, and desperately wants to get back in the game.
“At the end of the day, it’s about the kid’s health,” Velasquez said. “Usually, they don’t fight me on it, which I really appreciate.”
And while Velasquez plans to stay at Española for now, big opportunities could be around the corner for the hard-working and skilled trainer.
“She’s really good at her job, one of the best trainers I’ve seen,” Romero said. “Her name’s getting out there, a lot of people ask me about her.”