WHERE ARE THEY NOW? - MELISSA PETERSON

Today marks the second installment of "Where are they now?" presented by the VCU Athletics Department. Every two weeks, VCU Athletics will present a release in which we catch up with a former VCU student-athlete.

Today's feature is with former VCU volleyball standout Melissa Peterson. Peterson arrived on the VCU campus in the fall of 2005 and helped led the volleyball program to a CAA Tournament Championship and an appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Melissa took the term student-athlete to heart, as she focused her days were scheduled between practice and a full course-load of classes. Peterson loved the VCU Athletics program so much, that she decided to be a duel student-athlete and compete for the women's basketball program throughout the 2005-06 academic year.

Here is the interview between Melissa and VCU Athletic Communications Assistant Jon Nolan on her time as a student-athlete and life after donning the Black & Gold jersey.

JN: What was it about Coach Findley that originally drove you to play for him at Arizona Western College, then later here at VCU?

MP: There are not a lot of Native American student-athletes that get the chance to play at the collegiate level, let alone the Division I level. Coach Findley, came and saw me play right before the start of my senior year. I had some offers from Division II schools, but Coach Findley's persistence was key. He came to watch me play three or four times before I decided to go to Arizona Western. When you meet him and get to know him, you just feel like he is going to be the one that is there to help you out. I knew I wanted to play Division I after junior college, and felt Coach Findley would allow that dream to happen.

JN: At VCU you managed to be a two sport athlete, playing both volleyball (two seasons) and basketball (one season), which sport do you like the most?

MP: Well I like to play volleyball, but I don't like to watch volleyball if I am not playing. I like to play basketball, as well as watch basketball. I knew from the very beginning that I was going to have to choose a sport if I wanted to play at the collegiate level; because most of the time you can only play one sport. So I knew I was going to have to choose between volleyball and basketball. Volleyball gave me a better opportunity because I have played year round ever since I was in third grade. Basketball we did the same, but it was not as competitive. We didn't go to nationals or play in all the different qualifiers around the United States. Volleyball kind of opened me up a lot more than basketball did; the whole aspect of how volleyball is a mentality game. I was a little disadvantaged in terms of height, and I really enjoyed that challenge, which is why I ended up choosing volleyball.

JN: Arizona Western was a program that had a history of success, then you came to VCU where they had suffered a losing season, was it difficult to bring that winning culture to VCU?

MP: Well when we came from Arizona Western, and it wasn't just Coach Findley and I. It was Renata Salvatori  and Ludmila Francescatto also came because we knew that VCU had suffered a losing season the year before and was in the bottom of the conference in the standings. We knew coming in that the three of us needed to perform coming from the junior college level. That's just the type of people we are. It was really nice because Coach Findley came in and there were a couple players from the year before who had that same mentality, but didn't get the chance to play. We were all kind of new at VCU that first year. We just took off running and we didn't stop. We got that CAA championship we were looking for and made it to the NCAA Tournament. I still have my CAA Championship t-shirt, although it's pretty worn down, but it is something I will always keep.

JN: You briefly mentioned the experience of the CAA Championship and the NCAA Tournament match against Perdue, what did that experience mean for you? 

MP: For me personally, getting the chance to go to that tournament was a big deal. There are not many native American student-athletes who have had the chance to go to the NCAA Tournament in basketball, volleyball or football. That was a big motivation. Just to be at the level and having to play a talented Hofstra team three times that year. It was good when we were at Hofstra, because there is a good rivalry there. Especially a new VCU team coming in that was at the bottom of the conference the year before and finished second in the conference that season, before going on to win the tournament. It was exciting. I played every game as if I had a chip on my shoulder since I was shorter. Not a lot of people would give me the credit because of that until the match was over. Then someone would come over and say, "Oh wow, we should have watched out for her." It was fun and it was a great experience. We had a lot of fun staying in the hotel together, being in New York. It was my third time there and we had a nice long bus trip together and it all worked out.

JN: It seems like the team gelled really quickly, do you believe that help pay dividends for the team throughout the season?

MP: A team with good chemistry, is always a better team on the court because then your differences can easily be overcome and the group will work together to get better. We came in and it was nothing out of the ordinary. We did our six am workouts with strength and conditioning coach Tim Kontos, then practices before class.  I think we the support we had gotten around the university just boosted our motivation, especially from the men's and women's basketball teams. We were a tight knit family and we all hung out with each other. 

JN: Do you still stay in touch with many of your former teammates? plus any of the current members of the team?

MP: The girls on the team now I don't know many. I remember Courtney and some of the seniors who are just finishing now, because they were just coming in or made recruiting trips during my time. I still talk to Coach Findley and Drea, Amanda and the assistants. The girls I played with all connect through facebook, or say hello here or there. Same with our women's basketball team, because I played for them my junior year. One of the basketball players I stay in touch with. Its always nice to see how Crystal and Q are doing and overseas and in the WNBA. We stay pretty connected. I haven't had the chance to go back for the alumni game, which I want to, I was going to go the one this fall but I hurt my knee, and I had surgery last Tuesday. I plan on coming out to it next year and meeting everybody and seeing the older players.

JN: How did you suffer your recent injury? 

MP: I was playing basketball in the intramural league at Haskell University and I ended up partially tearing my ACL and messing up my meniscus.

JN: On what she is currently doing

I coached at Haskell for the four years, I am not coaching this year. Its an unfortunate situation that happened in that Haskell is an all native-American college and we are not at the level of Division I, as they compete at the NAIA level. Its just unfortunate in the way things have happened the way they have. I had surgery and I knew I was going to, so I am in the middle of figuring what jobs I am going to get. I got my masters here in public health at Haskell. I am starting my PHD next August, so I have some time until next August to do some things. It was a little late to apply for some college coaching positions because I found out I wasn't coaching until the end of July. I am getting my PHd in Public Health

Well I have always, because of VCU, I went into community health. I wasn't able to go into athletic training because of the time commitment, so I went into community health. My professors at VCU were amazing, they taught me whole lot in this field I was very interested in. So public health has been the route I have taken. Mostly I have been focusing on writing grants, especially for the Native American population because there are a lot of grants out there that I could get to work with the youth. Because I am an athlete, I would like to work with the youth more on the element of wellness. One area I would like to get into would be working with diabetes, which is a big problem among Native American people. I want to do that, but also Haskell is trying to start a four year public health program. So that is something I have gotten into. I have been volunteering with the diabetes program at Haskell and we just ended that last month. So I am just kind of in the stages of getting experience and learning.

JN: Was it difficult to transition from the court to the sidelines when you first became a head coach?

MP: I would always rather be playing than coaching. I think because of the disadvantage of my height playing at the Division I level, I had to find ways to beat the person I was playing and be smart. With those things I had figured out, and the things I learned from Coach Findley and other coaches throughout the nation, I was able to utilize all that information I gained when I started coaching. The level I was coaching was the NAIA level, and the student-athletes I was coaching were getting from the reservations, were playing volleyball, but not necessarily given the best the foundation. So I was teaching fundamentals, while also trying to beat these top teams at the NAIA level. We had two top-ranked teams in the conference we played in. We started from nothing and we came through and while we didn't get to a winning season in my time, we got better as a group. The most games we won during my time was nine, which was a big improvement from not winning a game the year before I started. We were just trying to get to that double-digit win total, and that was the hard part for me. Going from winning to losing.

JN: Did you ever find it difficult to balance the rigors of being a student and being an athlete?

I have always been a good student and they have the Gates Millennium Scholarship which takes care of all of my schooling. One year at VCU I didn't actually take the volleyball scholarship, because I got the academic scholarship to cover everything. So basically I was able to give Coach Findley an extra scholarship to find a player to come to our team. That was pretty cool and I told him he owed me a steak every time we were on the road; he lived up to his promise every now and then. For schooling I always had my goal and took care of my checklists of what classes I needed to take and where I was going to go. Then I got to VCU and some of my credits weren't transferring, so I had to jump ahead and to make sure I was eligible for the season. So I was taking 21 credits each semester sometimes just to get back on track. I would get up in the morning and be at lifting sessions at six, then went straight to class from 8 am to 2 p.m. Then practice from 3-5 p.m., before closing out the day with study hall or dinner. Then would go home and study before going to sleep. Those were my days. I didn't see them to be long days, but some days I had to stay up late studying, because one of my professors was very tough on us.

JN: Did you ever find that experience difficult to handle?

It was a really good experience and it also helped because my teammates were also studious. The two Brazilians that came with me are both very studious, and so I just jumped on board with them. We would spend our time at the library with two tables full of volleyball players. We would be studying and even if one of us didn't have to be there studying, we would be there just playing on the computer or on facebook. I think it was demanding, yet we were able to find the time because of the it was like a routine. The routine never got old because we would go from games one day, to practicing the next. Every now and then we would find the time to hang out with each other by going to the movies or have dinner.

JN: Was it difficult to adjust on the move from Arizona Western to VCU?

MP: No, I knew I wanted to get away and I trusted Coach Findley to help me make the right decision on where to go. Throughout my time, everyone on the team grew as a family and got to know everyone. Sometimes I look at it and can't believe I spent my two years at VCU and got the chance to do all the stuff I did.

JN: Did you get caught up in the Final Four run by the VCU Men's Basketball team?

MP: After VCU beat Kansas in basketball, I was wearing my VCU stuff in Kansas, where everyone loves the Jayhawks. Coach Self actually knows one of my friends, and one day we saw him saw him at a local restaurant and he came over and chatted with us. After he left, my friends were teasing me that I forgot mention I am a VCU graduate. I don't know if that would have made him smile or get mad.

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