Sports Dietitian Brittney Patera (copy)

Montana State sports dietitian Brittney Patera poses for a photo Wednesday morning at Bobcat Stadium.

As Montana State transitioned between drills during the second day of fall camp, Lance McCutcheon raised a question.

It didn’t have to do with any scheme or personnel package or assignment. It wasn’t even directed at a member of MSU’s coaching staff. The question was aimed at someone holding a six pack of Gatorade bottles standing on the side of the practice field.

“You got any sauce?” McCutcheon said.

He was referring to Brittney Patera’s carbohydrate and electrolyte enhanced concoction MSU players have grown fond of. The drink is designed for players low on energy or dealing with cramps. And once the Bobcats became familiar, players came up with the nickname.

“Now I have people yelling at me from across the field being like, ‘Brittney, I need the sauce,’” Patera said. “And I’m like, ‘This is awesome,’ because before it was like, ‘What is this?’”

Patera, a registered dietician, has helped transform the Bobcats’ nutrition. MSU is among the four schools of the 13 that play football in the Big Sky with a dietician or nutritionist on its athletic department’s staff. Since joining the program in February 2017, Patera’s role has grown significantly and her influence on athletes has assisted their athletic performance.

She began running MSU’s fueling station, located inside Brick Breeden Fieldhouse, and now plays a crucial part in educating players about what they should eat to optimize performance. She also helps craft individualized offseason plans and talks to recruits visiting campus to share the players’ experience.

“Our fueling station and the job that Brittney Patera does is second to none,” MSU head coach Jeff Choate said. “Regardless of where I’ve been, she’s as good as there is.”

A Bozeman native, Patera never thought she’d be doing what she is in her hometown. Unsure of what she wanted to pursue early on as an undergraduate at Chico State, she took a nutrition class and earned a top grade. Patera took it as a sign. And if she worked in sports, she figured she’d never be bored.

She earned a master’s degree from Buffalo before spending a year at Cincinnati. But it wasn’t until participating in a yearlong fellowship at Washington that she witnessed first-hand how a fully developed Division I nutrition program operated.

When she joined MSU two and a half years ago, Patera was initially tasked with launching the fueling station. Players could pick up healthy snacks before or after workouts, on their way to or from class or whenever else they were tight on time. The food available isn’t meant as a meal. But to assist athletes amid their busy schedules, it’s necessary.

“When they get done with a workout or they get done with practice, they can put fuel back in their body,” athletic director Leon Costello said. “When we do our exit interviews, we hear about that all the time. The first step was hiring a registered dietician that would coordinate all of the operation of the fueling station.”

Sports Dietitian Brittney Patera (copy)

Montana State sports dietitian Brittney Patera poses for a photo Wednesday morning on MSU's campus.

Once the fueling station was up and running, Patera expanded her reach by working with teams and individuals. She’s emphasized education with players, teaching them how to eat nutritiously. When meeting with freshmen, she introduces concepts of how to build their plate for each meal.

She compares their bodies to cars. If not fueled properly, they won’t perform at their peak.

She breaks down the importance of balancing fruits and vegetables, lean protein and grains and starch. She shows them a picture of what a plate should look like before or after a workout. She teaches the value of snacks and how to time their eating around a practice or weight-lifting session to maximize performance.

As players become older, Patera’s focus shifts from how to build plates in dining halls to buying the right foods and cooking the right meals. Some have asked her to go grocery shopping with them to receive her advice while traversing food aisles.

Senior running back Logan Jones said he used to eat chicken and waffles the night before games. Now, he recognizes the importance of eating healthier and avoids fried food. He opts for pasta two nights before games and a balanced meal that includes vegetables and salad on Friday nights.

“It’s made a difference I think for me and my body especially because I’ve been much healthier,” Jones said. “I’ve felt better. I’ve slept better. It’s just improved every bit of quality of life for me to say the least. ... She’s been a lot bigger of a help than I think a lot of us realize.”

The biggest change Patera has seen in the past few years has been the level to which athletes embrace her lessons. It took time to develop trust and for her ideas to seep into the culture of each program. Now, sticking to her plans happens almost automatically.

Some will even send Patera photos of food they cook on their own to show they are following her instructions. When they’re energetic about showing their progress, that’s when Patera knows everything is clicking. And as athletes both implement what Patera taught and take ownership of their nutrition, that’s the most rewarding part of her job.

“Those pictures that they send me, literally every time my heart melts,” Patera said, “because it’s like they’re getting it and what we’re doing. It’s working.”

Sports Dietitian Brittney Patera (copy)

Montana State sports dietitian Brittney Patera poses for a photo Wednesday morning on MSU's campus.

When asked what her typical day consists of, Patera pointed out how every day differs. Sometimes she’s conducting hydration tests or body composition tests or making snack bags for athletes or making recovery drinks for after workouts.

But no matter what, she tries to be present as often as possible at the fueling station. That’s when athletes ask questions or schedule appointments to discuss different topics.

She also relies on interns who rotate a nearby bulletin board with nutritional topics, which athletes may read while eating. Patera puts together a PowerPoint presentation that changes twice a month with additional information.

During football fall camp practices, she’s often holding bottles with the sauce as well as snacks in case anyone becomes lightheaded. She’ll help prepare breakfast sandwiches or bagels in the morning to pair with fruit. This year, players requested she provide evening snacks rather than the program bringing in other food.

“She’s amazing,” wide receiver Willie Patterson said. “She literally teaches us exactly how to make meals. Exactly what we need to put in our bodies. Exactly what time. Everything, honestly. ... She’s upgraded her level, and she’s upgraded our play for sure.”

Patera’s influence increased so much she now talks to recruits. Coaches want prospective athletes to understand what MSU can offer.

“That’s huge for recruits to see because a lot of other schools in our conference, they’re not doing this,” Patera said. “I think we have a huge one-up with it, but that’s why now they’re making sure the recruits are always over there and they have me talk to them about what we do.”

After the Bobcats’ offseason training program, which prioritized weight gain for the majority of players, nearly everyone entered fall camp at their desired weight. That’s an improvement from two years ago.

Once the players are educated on healthy eating, they can not only continue that throughout the rest of their playing careers, but their lives as well.

“That’s the holistic approach that we’re taking within our athletic department,” Choate said. “I think (that) is the direction of the future in college athletics, and it’s good to know we’re on the front end of it at the Big Sky Conference level.”

Paul Schwedelson can be reached at pschwedelson@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2670. Follow him on Twitter @pschweds.

Paul Schwedelson is a sports writer for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.