Meet the athletic trainer who helps keep the No. 1 USC women’s basketball team healthy
Craig Oates was sitting in South Carolina’s locker room last Sunday, explaining his day-to-day duties as head athletic trainer for the best women’s basketball team in the country, when he realized the perfect example was hiding in plain sight.
Down a few spots to his right, starting forward Victaria Saxton was talking to reporters while wearing a portable ultrasound unit, a safety precaution Oates had recommended after she suffered a minor bruise in USC’s Sweet 16 game against UCLA the previous afternoon.
Oates nodded in her direction.
“Is it necessary?” he said. “Maybe not, but it’s just one of those things for this time of year. My adage is, if it gets them 1 or 2 percent better, that can make the difference for them and how they feel on the court. So, you know, just little things like that.”
One night later, Saxton played an NCAA Tournament-high 22 minutes and scored six points as South Carolina beat Maryland and advanced to the Final Four. Her bruise, just as Oates had hoped, was a non-factor. He couldn’t have been happier.
Which speaks to the unique role South Carolina’s head athletic trainer since 2019 plays for a dynastic program that’s won 42 consecutive games and could become the first back-to-back women’s basketball national champion since 2013-16 UConn this weekend in Dallas.
The No. 1 overall seed Gamecocks (36-0) feature one of the sport’s most renowned and recognizable coaches (Dawn Staley), one of its most dominant and draftable players (Aliyah Boston) and a roster full of pro prospects and McDonald’s All-Americans.
But for Oates, South Carolina’s first line of defense for any and all in-game injuries, no news is good news. Friends and family members often ask why he doesn’t make more TV cameos for the nationally televised Gamecocks, to which he’ll shoot back, “If you see me, that’s a problem.”
“And if you don’t see anything, that doesn’t mean I’m just sitting on the bench minding my business,” he said with a laugh.
Oates, in other words, tries to be invisible within a very visible program: trusting that the comprehensive care plan he executes daily with women’s basketball sports performance coach Molly Binetti will keep players healthy and him in his preferred behind-the-scenes role.
That doesn’t mean his contributions go unnoticed.
“I love Craig,” forward Brea Beal said.
“He’s always there,” Boston said. “He’s always ready to go.”
“Craig has been here ever since I got here and is literally the best trainer in the world,” guard Zia Cooke said. “It’s gonna be very hard for me to find someone as good as him. He does his job the right way. … It’s nothing that he doesn’t know the answers to.”
‘The secret sauce’ to USC’ success
Oates’ position is historically a tough one to hire for as a head coach, Staley said, because more often than not you’re taking a shot in the dark. One can’t exactly scout an athletic trainer’s ankle-taping skills like a five-star recruit’s jump shot.
But Oates has done nothing but a “great job” since she hired him away from her alma mater four years ago, trusting that anyone accomplished enough to work in the Virginia athletic training department that helped her so much as a player was accomplished enough to work for her.
“If (players) are ill or hurt, he gets them right,” Staley said. “And the most important thing is, he and Molly Binetti have a tremendous relationship. … They work extremely well together. They’re probably the secret sauce behind our success.”
Indeed, Oates will be the first to clarify he’s the opposite of a one-man show. He, Binetti and nutritionist Jeremy Ford are among a small army of full-time staffers and student assistants working collaboratively to provide South Carolina women’s basketball players with a “total well-being” approach encompassing all aspects of physical and mental health.
And his roles within that broad description are, well, broad.
Sometimes it’s as simple as reminding players to eat well, stay hydrated and get the right amount of sleep (USC’s holy trinity of postseason advice). Sometimes it’s as complex as assisting guard Raven Johnson through six months of grueling — and ultimately successful — rehab after knee surgery. But it always starts with the same question: “What do you need?”
That speaks to a longtime Staley philosophy: “Pain is personal.” She’ll never rush someone back from injury or tell an hurt player how to feel. Oates said it’s one of the reasons he loves working for a two-time national champion coach he describes as “as authentic as they come.”
But even with USC pouring dozens of hours and thousands of dollars into player health, injuries happen. In sports, they’re inevitable. Oates’ eyes rarely leave the floor during games. His mind is running at a million miles an hour, stacking up mental notes with every board and box-out. Are the water bottles full? Does someone need an ice pack? A massage gun?
The little things
It’s all “minuscule,” Oates admitted, but undeniably important. Take a blood stoppage, a fair rule but also at times a competitive disadvantage. Something as small as a painless, half-inch cut a player doesn’t even notice could still force them out of the game for 20 seconds of treatment — and what if those 20 seconds come in the fourth quarter of a one-possession game?
As such, one of Oates’ proudest moments this season came on Feb. 23 against Tennessee: South Carolina was in the middle of a close game when Oates and his assistants noticed Boston was slightly bleeding. Instead of waiting for a ref to notice and stop play, USC simply pulled Boston out of the paint and into the backcourt to address the issue during someone else’s free throw attempt — she never had to sub out, and South Carolina won the game 73-60.
And when players are legitimately hurt, Oates’ job becomes that much more important. He’s often the first staffer to rush out to an injured player on the court, accompany them back to the locker room and/or offer an initial diagnosis or update to Staley and her assistant coaches — far from the easiest run of high-pressure decisions, but something he embraces.
Thankfully for the Gamecocks, that hasn’t been a huge issue in 2022-23. Out of USC’s five primary starters, only one (guard Kierra Fletcher) has missed time because of injury — and that was a one-game ankle absence. Boston, notably, has played and started in all 36 games this season despite a Nov. 27 ankle sprain against Hampton that put her in a walking boot.
But the 2023 SEC Player of the Year and Naismith Defensive Player of the Year returned two days later, recovering and playing against UCLA to preserve an iron woman streak that’s earned her national recognition — Boston has never missed a game in her USC career and will make it a perfect 138 games (with 138 starts) in Friday’s Final Four game against Iowa.
Is it a coincidence that a certain athletic trainer arrived in Columbia the same summer as a certain five-star recruit from the U.S. Virgin Islands? Probably. Oates is among the many to (correctly) credit Boston’s streak to her own personal dedication to strength and conditioning and nutrition.
But give Oates and company some credit, too, Boston said, “because they do what they can, the best that they can, to help us be able to get back on the court and just be ready to compete for when it’s time.”
Even if it’s just by 1 or 2 percent.
SOUTH CAROLINA VS. IOWA GAME INFO
Who: No. 1 South Carolina (36-0) vs. No. 2 Iowa (30-6)
Where: American Airlines Arena in Dallas
When: Approximately 9 p.m. Friday
Stream: Via ESPN or the ESPN app
Next up: Next up: The winner of South Carolina-Iowa will advance to the national championship game on Sunday at American Airlines Arena at 3:30 p.m. to face the winner of Friday’s Virginia Tech-LSU game.