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November 10, 2010

USING HER HEAD - Jennifer Harvey has used her head - literally - both on and off the field during a solid career

By: Matt Kovatch

Jennifer Harvey

Jennifer Harvey has been as reliable as they come over the course of her four-year career as a Virginia Tech soccer player. She’s tied for the program’s all time lead with 85 matches played, and she ranks second in matches started with 82 (as of Nov. 4). The 5-foot-6 midfielder is also tied for seventh all time in both goals and points, while she’s knotted at 10th in shots and 11th in assists.

Her peers will likely point to her toughness as her defining quality. But for most Hokie fans, Harvey just may be remembered for what is jokingly referred to on the team as the “jockstrap.”

You see, one of Harvey’s main duties on the women’s soccer team for the past four seasons has been to win balls in the air with her head. If she’s not being targeted on throw-ins, she’s trying to redirect the ball into the goal off of corner kicks and free kicks. It’s a task that requires not only exceptional leaping ability, which Harvey possesses from her days as a high school volleyball star, but also the mental capacity to throw caution to the wind and risk injury on every mid-air battle.

With skulls, elbows, feet – and occasionally, the ball – colliding during every joust, injuries are inevitable. Harvey is living proof of it, having suffered four broken noses, several concussions, and numerous black eyes, cuts and gashes over the years. But it’s all business as usual for the senior from Roanoke, Va.

“It’s second nature to me now – I don’t really think about it anymore,” Harvey said of her various bumps and bruises. And of her nose, she joked, “I’m not even sure that I care if it breaks again at this point.”

In hopes of preventing additional breaks, Harvey has turned to the aforementioned “jockstrap,” an unconventional device dreamed up by athletics trainer Katie Baer. Though Baer joked that she hasn’t yet applied for a patent on the unusual nose guard, she admitted it has proven to be effective for Harvey in her own way.

“They had the general nose guards that go up to your forehead, but I couldn’t really play and head the ball with that one,” Harvey said.

When Jen broke her nose for the first time years ago, we tried to use the typical ‘phantom-of-the-opera’ mask that you see in basketball,” Baer explained further. “However, with a lot of her role on the team being to win head balls, we needed something that allowed her to have more of a true forehead.”

So Baer and the training staff put their thinking caps on, broke out some tools and went to work. There was a lot of trial and error involved, but they eventually settled on malleable Orthoplast and some elastic bands. Though the final appearance inspired the comical name and even got a mention on the Web site, a blog that documents the trends and aesthetics of sports equipment and uniforms and is routinely linked to by ESPN, the “jockstrap” serves it purpose.

Jennifer Harvey has been terrific both on and off the field and has plans for a career in medicine once she finishes at Tech.

“At first, we forgot to figure out how to incorporate her hair into the mix,” Baer said. “But after a couple of years now, we have it down to a science and her ponytail actually helps to keep the mask up.”

The mask has not only helped to protect Harvey’s brittle nose, but it also has aided in soothing any lingering concern over her getting hurt again. Harvey isn’t worried about the next injury to her face because she knows it’s likely to happen anyway. What she’s most scared of, though, is that those injuries are going to force her off the field.

“I would say that my toughest injury was probably against James Madison this year when I sliced my forehead open and got a concussion in the middle of the game,” Harvey explained. “They had to stitch it up and it was really sore, but the hardest thing was being scared that I wasn’t going to be able to play with it for our next game. That’s probably the toughest thing – just thinking, ‘What if I actually can’t play a game because of this?’”

Harvey said she has reached the point where she won’t stop playing unless her nose is actually bleeding, and because she is one of the training room’s most frequent customers, Baer can attest to Harvey’s dauntless nature.

“I think Jen is one of the toughest athletes that I have seen,” Baer said. “She is such a competitor that she wants to be out on the field no matter what kind of pain she is in. Even more than that, I am always impressed that, no matter what kind of injury happens, she always plays with no fear, as though she has never been hit in the head before. It’s like she has selective memory of her injuries and forgets about them once she steps onto the field.

“She always wants to play, so we have to rein her in and keep her resting when it is appropriate, but we also try to do whatever we can to keep her on the field.”

Despite Harvey’s reckless style of play, don’t go thinking that she came to Virginia Tech simply to knock heads with the Hokies’ ACC rivals. While her noggin has been her most valuable weapon on the field, it’s also been her most useful tool off of it.

Harvey came to Tech to hit the books, and after recently being named to the CoSIDA/ESPN The Magazine All-Academic District III first team, she may be even better at school than she is at soccer. It’s actually the third time that she’s been honored by the College Sports Information Directors of America committee, which requires at least a 3.30 grade-point average for consideration, and it’s the second consecutive year in which she made the first team.

Coming to school at Virginia Tech was pretty much a foregone conclusion for Harvey. Not only was she born and raised in nearby Roanoke, but also the list of her friends and family members who attended Virginia Tech goes on and on.

“I think my grandfather first came here in 1932,” Harvey said. “Both of my sisters went here, and so did my dad and a bunch of my cousins. I don’t know if I’d say it was my dream to come here, but I was kind of always a Hokie. I always just kind of knew that I was going to come to Virginia Tech and that I would play soccer here.”

Harvey is majoring in chemistry, and she’s in the process of applying to medical schools – her list of possible destinations includes VCU, Wake Forest, Georgetown and South Carolina – to begin pursuit of a future career as a doctor. It’s something she’s known that she’s wanted to do for years now, and even Baer has noticed it.

“I think that Jen spends time in the training room not only because of her injuries, but also because she enjoys being around sports medicine,” Baer said.

I’m really curious,” Harvey agreed. “I enjoy finding out about everything that I don’t know. I love to know random facts and how things work and things that nobody else really knows.”

It’s because of that curiosity that Harvey wants to focus on research when she earns her doctorate.

“I want to be able to do clinical research in my own lab and to be able to test stuff with patients,” she said. “I like thinking about how I could actually help save lives. I often dream of being in a research group that comes up with something that could save lives for hundreds of years. That thought is what really just keeps pushing me toward that career.”

Harvey said she is particularly drawn to studying neurology.

The whole nervous system really interests me,” she added. “I like the thought of having a specialty and being really knowledgeable about one particular thing. I also want to have patients over long periods of time so I can work on their cases and get to know them and build relationships. I think I would be good at that.”

After witnessing Harvey become the Hokies’ leader both on the field and in the classroom over the past four years, Baer has little doubt that Harvey will conquer whatever her future holds.

“I think that Jen has the desire and the drive to do anything that she sets her mind to,” Baer concluded. “I hope that she can live her dream of going to medical school and I’m sure she will compete to be in the top of the class. Her competitiveness, toughness and leadership, in combination with the high standards that she has for herself, will make her successful in any career that she chooses.”

Especially if her career involves researching new nose guard technologies – she has plenty of experience to draw from there.