Tech coaches, nutrition staff excited about Monday announcement

By Jimmy Robertson

BLACKSBURG – In light of Monday’s big announcement – the securing of a largest donation ever to athletics to proceed with the construction of a Student-Athlete Performance Center – many of Tech’s coaches went about their jobs Monday afternoon with an added sense of excitement over the array of benefits that this project brings to their respective programs.

Many cited the better overall health of their student-athletes. Some cited expected improved performances in the playing venue. Others brought up the impact in recruiting. Some even mentioned the social component, as student-athletes from different sports could be using the center at the same time.

But no one was more excited than Jennie Zabinsky, Tech’s associate AD for sports nutrition.

“Oh my gosh, I’m thrilled,” she said. “This is going to be our top priority. We’re going to make it the best. We’ve got one shot to make it great. There is a lot of planning involved, and we’re going to do it the right way.”

Zabinsky figures to play one of the main lead roles in the design, the construction and ultimately the use of the $16.5 million center, which takes the place of the Bowman Room on the fourth floor of the Jamerson Athletics Center. This new performance center provides space for multiple uses – donor hospitality before football and basketball games, departmental meetings, recruiting functions, etc.

But rest assured, this center is being built primarily for the feeding of Tech’s approximately 600 student-athletes. Thus, the center will include a massive kitchen, which gives the nutrition staff the ability to create meals designed for performance and/or recovery, and also a dining area, with seating for several hundred people.

"Our focus with this space will be all about supporting and improving athletic performance,” Zabinsky said. “This not only means providing certain foods that will help athletes replenish, refuel, and rebuild, but also creating a labeling system that will help educate our student-athletes on what to eat when. Although the nutrition staff will help supervise this space, we want our student-athletes to be able to choose the right foods for their individual needs on their own – like. ‘Hey, I'm really sore. What's going to help me recover quicker?,’ or 'Hey, I need to get my weight up. What foods are going to help me do this the right way?'

"There is going to be a balance. We're not the food police. The nutrition staff is here to support, not diminish. We want them to enjoy their meal, but part of our role will be exposing them to new foods and new ideas – something we are already doing in our current Training Table and other offerings."

Many fans and alums know the importance of strength and conditioning and sports medicine, as those areas relate to performance, but nutrition rates just as highly. The Tech athletics department recognized that early on and became one of the first schools to hire a full-time nutritionist when department officials hired Amy Freel in 2003.

Zabinsky took over when Freel left for a similar position at Indiana, and today, Zabinsky and her staff develop nutrition plans, take student-athletes on grocery store tours, make team meal arrangements for teams that are traveling, provide nutritional counseling services, and much more.

Tech’s coaches certainly see the value in her and her staff. Take for instance, Tech wrestling coach Tony Robie. He uses a portion of his budget for nutritional purposes, as he taps into Zabinsky’s and her staff’s expertise to create menus for two catered meals each week.

“In our sport, it’s [nutrition] incredibly important,” Robie said. “When it comes to being elite and being the best in the country, everything you do matters in this day and age. From your training to your sleep to your recovery – cold tubs, hot tubs, that kind of stuff – to nutrition, all of that stuff matters. It’s a game of inches at the highest level.

“We’ve got guys competing for national championships and all those things matter, and making sure your body is operating as efficiently as possible is vital. It’s vital for the success of our guys.”

Other coaches invest their precious resources in the same way. Actually, Justin Fuente made nutrition a priority when he first was hired as the football coach in December of 2015.

Fuente met with Zabinsky and her staff shortly after coming aboard and wanted to make sure his players ate breakfast several mornings a week during the season. He required his players to attend, partly to get them up and moving each morning, but mostly for nutritional purposes.

“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and a lot of kids won’t eat breakfast,” Fuente said. “We have seen more gains through not doing anything different in the weight room, but just feeding our kids on a more consistent basis. If you just give them money, they’re not going to buy food, and if they do, it’s not going to be good food.”

Zabinsky and her staff – which includes two full-time people, two graduate assistants, 1 fellow (funded by Gatorade) and 20 student workers – already have started planning both in terms of what they want to see in the new center and what they want to offer student-athletes. In fact, they started planning three years ago when the NCAA decided that athletics departments could provide unlimited meals for its student-athletes.

The Tech athletics department started catering more meals, and Zabinsky and her staff added items to the department’s “Nutrition Oasis,” which resides on the bottom floor of Jamerson. The Oasis offers items like Gatorade products, smoothies, fruit, made-to-order sandwiches, Greek yogurt, trail mix and other high-performance snacks.

“That was the biggest first step for everything,” Zabinsky admitted of the NCAA legislation changes. "Them acknowledging that departments now had control over nutrition and how they want to fuel their student-athletes, and that our hands weren't tied anymore. Our initial short-term goals were building fueling stations. We currently have five. These fueling stations allow us to fuel our student-athletes in and around training and practice – crucial times that help them make gains. We also wanted to be visible as much as possible, and this definitely helped. The culture we have here in regards to nutrition is great, but we always have room for improvement. Our athletes are realizing that, if they want to compete at an elite level, they better starting treating their body right. This new facility is definitely going to continue our momentum."

Now, she and her staff will be preparing meals once the Student-Athlete Performance Center is completed. She hopes to help with that, as she spent a portion of this past fall visiting other schools with similar dining facilities. She brought back some great ideas, along with what's working and not working at other schools.

It certainly takes time to plan this project the right way, but department officials wanted to move in this direction a few years ago and started planning accordingly. The $15.2 million gift from a family that wanted to stay anonymous allows those officials to enter the design phase quickly, and AD Whit Babcock hopes to see the project completed by the fall of 2019.

But the benefits of Monday’s announcement should come even quicker than that. Tech’s coaches were practically reaching for their cell phones before Monday’s news conference ended to call recruits.

“It’s just another point of pride for our athletic program,” Tech men’s soccer coach Mike Brizendine said. “This will be something that I run to instead of something I stay away from. Something that we didn’t have, I just didn’t talk about it. Now that we have it, I’m going to make it a point of emphasis. It’s going to be, ‘Hey, the other schools you’re looking at, what do they have? Let me show you this brand new $17 million facility.’”

Zabinsky feels that same excitement. And though she isn’t a coach, she certainly understands their feelings.

“Athletes want to compete at the highest level,” she said. “And this is going to help them do that.”

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