NAUGATUCK — Crashing the boards, as they say in the game of basketball, is not for the faint of heart. Being in the middle of the action in the paint where bodies are colliding and elbows are flying takes a determination and a desire that is not found in every athlete.
Naugatuck senior Alyssa Peterson has that fearless approach to her game, and it has led her on a road far less traveled than most — a road that included season-ending anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries in her sophomore and junior years.
Peterson has always played under the boards, even though she stands at 5 feet, 8 inches tall. Playing at City Hill Middle School under the direction of head coach Fred Scheithe, she honed her skills and quickly made her mark at Naugatuck High as a freshman.
“Alyssa was one of the best freshman I ever coached,” former Naugatuck coach Jodie Burns said. “I found it impossible not to play her because she was first in every sprint, boxed out every play and soaked in every bit of coaching, and then applied it to her game.”
“I worked hard,” Peterson said. “By the third game of my freshman year I had worked my way into the starting rotation. I was around six to eight points per game, but it was my double digit totals in rebounds that made me an asset to the team.”
Peterson wasn’t about to rest on her laurels after a successful freshman campaign. She went full steam into the offseason and played AAU ball for the Bandits out of New Britain.
She tore the ACL in her right knee during an AAU tournament. The injury sidelined her for her sophomore year at Naugatuck.
“I never got hurt before,” Peterson said. “I might have rolled an ankle at practice but never lost any playing time.”
“We were in a really physical game and I was trying to help beat a press,” she recalled. “I got caught in the corner and the girl ran into me pretty hard. The doctor said it was a sprain, and I tried to come back too early. The next game I thought my leg was strong enough. But it wasn’t, and it just buckled.”
Peterson recovered from the injury with enough time to play summer and rec ball before her junior season. She started out her junior year slow, trying to work herself back into basketball shape.
After a handful of games, Peterson was feeling comfortable banging heads in the low post. She threw down 12 points, secured eight rebounds and came away with four steals in a tough loss to Woodland.
Then came the unthinkable.
In the next game against Ansonia, Peterson was leading the team down the floor on a fast break and made a jump stop. It happened again — only this time it was the ACL in her left knee that tore.
“It was extremely frustrating. I had a really successful freshman year. I was a varsity starter and I hoped to keep improving my game and possibly play in college,” Peterson told the Republican-American. “Not being able to play my sophomore year, I kind of saw it as I was still young, so I was like ‘Everything happens for a reason,’ and it kind of made me understand that how important the game is to me and how much I actually care about it.”
Peterson endured a true test of the character of an athlete to battle back for her senior season.
“I wasn’t cleared until about two weeks prior to this season,” Peterson said. “Of course I tried to push it and got some swelling. So I’m taking it a little slower now. Coach (Gail Cheney) is being cautious not knowing if I’m going to tell her if I’m hurting.
“I played for an extended period of time in the Kennedy game (on Dec. 19) and was honest with myself, and told the coach when I needed to come out. I know I’m not playing to the best of my ability but that will come with time.”
Cheney realizes what kind of impact player Peterson can be in the low post but isn’t willing to take a chance by pushing her before she’s ready.
“Alyssa is a hard worker,” Cheney said. “But she is coming off a very serious injury, and you saw what happened when she tried to make it happen sooner last season. She will be much more valuable to us at the end of the season than right now. She is coming along and will only get stronger as the season goes along.”
Peterson’s love for the game comes from her grandfather, Naugatuck Hall of Fame member John Minicucci. He has been a positive influence on Peterson’s life since she was playing for the Shockers in the YMCA Little Pal league.
“My grandfather is actually the reason I started playing basketball,” Peterson said. “When I was hurt he helped me to stay positive and would work with me. After a game I would always go to him to find out what I did right and what I needed to work on.”
Minicucci may get to watch his granddaughter play basketball in college, though it’s likely to be for a club team.
“As far as college goes, I would go for it if there was an open tryout,” said Peterson, who wants to study sports medicine orthopedic surgery. “But really my academics have to come first. I do want to play club ball to stay in the game and see what happens.”
As for the rest of her senior season, Peterson wants to leave everything she has on the court.
“I want to leave Naugatuck knowing that I gave everything I had to the program,” Peterson said. “I started my career on a high note as a freshman and I would really love to go out the same way.”