Elmwood senior Alyssa Peterson has been spending her winters on basketball courts since she was a fourth grader. When asked to play a role on Elmwood's fifth-grade team due to low numbers, fourth-grade Peterson jumped at the opportunity and soon fell in love with the sport that allowed her to stay active with her friends during the dreary Wisconsin winters.
Now, in her final school year at Elmwood, Peterson has been asked to transition into a new role that keeps her in dress shoes rather than Nikes while on the court. Instead of running through her team's tunnel when her name is called during introductions, Elmwood/Plum City Wolves' new coach intern Peterson stands at the end of her team's handshake line, encouraging her teammates before they tip off for 36 minutes of high school basketball - something she'll never do again.
Peterson spent her entire high school basketball career enduring knee pain and recovering from various injuries, but after struggling to make it through her senior season of volleyball due to patellar tendinitis, she made the decision to sit out from competition during her last run with the Wolves' basketball team.
"They call it jumper's knee," Peterson said when asked to explain her injury, adding jokingly, "most people who get it only get it in the one knee, but I was lucky and got it in both."
The senior outside hitter wore two-band knee braces on both of her legs throughout her final season of volleyball, but the pain became so severe that she struggled to walk up the stairs of Elmwood High School after an hour-long practice.
"I was hoping that as the volleyball season went on that the pain might go away like it had in past years, but it just kind of kept getting worse," Peterson said. "About halfway through volleyball season, I realized that there was no way I was going to physically be able to play basketball."
Soon, Peterson faced the decision of returning to the hardwood or preventing her barely bearable pain by concluding her basketball career. She chose the latter, but it wasn't easy.
"That was a really hard thing to accept," Peterson said. "I know my parents had a tough time with it, too. But it was more of a personal choice than anything. Just to be able to make it through the day without being in pain."
Now, coach intern Peterson still dresses up for every Wolves game but in street clothes instead of her No. 3 jersey. The former player now provides her teammates with positivity and tips as they come on and off the bench where she stays put throughout games.
As an adult, Peterson will probably thank her high school self for taking it easy on her body and reducing long-lasting knee pain, but right now, her decision still weighs on her as she adjusts to her new role on the team and the pain of not playing.
"I knew that I still wanted to be around the program, because it's a sport that I really enjoy," Peterson said. "My parents knew it was going to be hard on me having to sit there because they knew I'd be itching to play the whole time I'm on the bench. It's gotten a little bit harder as the season goes on, because it's really hitting me that I'm not going to be able to play at all.
"I've had temporary injuries in the past, but I've gotten back into playing. This one is just a forever thing."
Watching her teammates drop 12 of their first 13 games hasn't made Peterson's transition any easier.
"We have such a young team this year," Peterson said. "It's even harder knowing that I went from a starter last year to now not being able to play at all. It's rough watching these games and how some of them go - losing by 40 or 50 points. But it's a whole new perspective when you're on the bench because you see so many different things that could be done or need to be done differently."
Instead of determining when to spot up for a corner three or find an open teammate, Peterson is now tasked with providing constant positivity and insight for her teammates while attempting to hide her internal frustrations.
When asked what she's learned from being an intern coach, Peterson said, "definitely patience. It's hard because when coach Laehn goes to sub people in, he'll hesitate at me for a second and that's always kind of sad. It's a little difficult at times, especially when we're down by quite a lot."
"It's taken a while, but she is starting now to realize, 'I'm not going to be doing that ever, so what can I do?' She still really wants to go out there, which is good, but we know that she can help us in some other ways," Laehn said. "She's coming around with that. Games are really hard on her, and practice too, but she still comes. Once in a while she works, but for the most part, she's there."
The Wolves are missing the experience of floor general Peterson who averaged 7.6 points, 1.8 assists and one steal per game last year, but now they're reaping the benefits of what coach Peterson can provide on the bench.
"I constantly give high-fives, reassurance about shooting or defense or different things like that," Peterson said. "Sometimes I'll go out of my way to go sit by someone once they get subbed out and talk to them about what needs to be done differently and things like that."
Laehn has also picked up on a lesson that coach Peterson has shared with his players.
"I think that when she sees the girls, she wishes they'd work harder," Laehn said. "It's that realization of you could be done, too. You might not have a senior season. There are four seniors and they're done after this year. Play like this is your last game. That mentality is what I think she wants to pass on to the girls. You're one game away from being done."
Peterson may be influencing her former teammates' work ethics subconsciously, but she's lifting their spirits in a pronounced manner.
"I obviously hope we can pull out a few more games that we should win, but I just want everyone to gain confidence," Peterson said. "A few of the younger girls are seeing roles on the varsity team, and I just want them to know that they are just as valuable as a senior.
"Just have fun, too. Don't miss out on getting out and exercising with your friends. It's one of the best parts of being in a sport."
Peterson could see herself potentially pursuing a future in coaching, but for now, she's grateful for the chance she's been given to stay connected to the sport that's been a recurring part of her young adult life.
"Big thanks to both coach Laehn and coach (Alex) Gilles," Peterson said. "I'm very lucky to still be around this program and for how they've kept me involved. It's definitely different, but I'm thankful that I'm still around the program."