From Hoops to the Gridiron: UCR Alumna to Play in History-Making Football Championship Game

Former basketball player Holly Peterson ('05) making a name for herself as a receiver for San Diego Surge of the Women's Football Alliance

Holly Peterson playing basketball and football

UC Riverside alumna Holly Peterson ('05) played basketball for the Highlanders from 2001 to 2005, and is now making a name for herself on the football field as a member of the San Diego Surge of the Women's Football Alliance. Left photo by UCR Office of Athletics Media Relations. Right photo by Lisa Carey-Navarrete

Editor’s note: The San Diego Surge defeated the Chicago Force, 40-36, on August 4, 2012 in the WFA championship game. Peterson ran the opening kickoff back for a touchdown to open the scoring.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (www.ucr.edu)  —  Throughout her life, University of California, Riverside alumna Holly Peterson (’05) has dreamed about playing a part in a history-making event in women’s sports. And on Saturday, August 4, 2012, she’ll have her opportunity.

Peterson and her teammates on the San Diego Surge will make history as they take on the Chicago Force in the Women’s Football Alliance Championship Game at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, PA. The game is significant not only in that it will be the for the league championship, but because it is being played in the home stadium of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers and is scheduled to be broadcast over the internet on ESPN3/WatchESPN.com. Both are major breakthroughs for the fledgling WFA and the sport of women’s tackle football as a whole as they further legitimize the sport.

And Peterson, the team’s top wide receiver, is thrilled to be a part of it.

“It may sound corny, but my whole life I have daydreamed about playing a part of something big in women’s sports. I thought it might be a kind of destiny,” she said.

Holly Peterson dribbling

Holly Peterson shows her moves on the basketball floor at the Student Recreation Center during the 2004-05 season. Photo by UCR Office of Athletics Media Relations

Perhaps it was, as it has been a long road that has brought her to the gridiron. Growing up in Elk Grove, California, Peterson’s parents wouldn’t let her play youth-league football, instead directing her into other sports, including basketball. She went on to become a standout high school guard and her skills brought her to UCR, where she was a key player for the Highlanders’ women’s basketball team from 2001 through 2005. She graduated in 2005 with a degree in creative writing and an emphasis on poetry, then went to Azusa Pacific University to earn a master’s in education and a teaching credential.

Her first job after college was teaching elementary school physical education in San Diego and it was there, in 2010, that she heard about a tryout for the Southern California Scorpions women’s football team in the Independent Women’s Football League. She went to the tryout, made the cut and found herself fulfilling her childhood dream of playing football.

“I wanted to play Pop Warner football growing up, but I couldn’t because my parents didn’t want me getting hurt,” she said. “Now they see that I love it and couldn’t be more proud of my success with it.”

To say that she has been successful would be an understatement. After playing with the Scorpions for one season, she moved along with most of her teammates and the coaching staff to the newly-created Surge and the WFA in 2011. In 2012, she was the team’s best wide receiver, leading the squad with 27 receptions for 418 yards and seven touchdowns.

While scoring touchdowns is fun, Peterson says she prefers some of the less glamorous aspects of the position.

“I enjoy setting that one perfect block,” she said. “In our last game I had a block that I held for about ten yards, pushed that girl into another defender and hurdled over them as they crashed to the ground, then watched my running back continue to run for an 87-yard touchdown. In that way it is similar to an assist in basketball – making that perfect pass to a teammate was always my favorite part about basketball.”

“I love getting my hands dirty, I love blocking, I love going over the middle to catch a pass,” she added. “The harder it is, the harder I go after it. I think what has created a lot of success for me as a receiver is that I am fearless – I don’t think about what is happening, I just do it.”

“Holly is one of the hardest workers on the field. She came into this season in great shape and it’s paying off,” said Surge Head Coach Mike Suggett. “She’s become one of the leaders on the team and a big reason for our success this year.”

Former UCR Assistant Basketball Coach Coral Sage (’02), who coached Peterson for two years and who is now in her eighth year as head basketball coach at Cosumnes River College, said that she wasn’t surprised to learn that Peterson had started playing football.

“Holly was always very tough and enjoyed contact, so it seems to be a very good fit for her,” Sage said. “She was one of the toughest players I ever coached, like a bulldozer on the court. She could run through players without blinking an eye, and if she did get knocked down, she’d just get back up over and over again.”

“She’s just a good athlete always looking for the next challenge,” Sage added, recounting a trip that she took with Peterson and former UCR soccer player Kristen Cocks to climb Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. “It was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. Watching Holly accomplish this reinforced the fact that Holly can do anything she puts her mind to.”

wide receiver making a catch

UCR alumna Holly Peterson (’05) leaps to make a catch for the San Diego Surge in a game earlier this season. Photo by Lisa Carey-Navarrete

Peterson and her fellow members of the league come from diverse athletics backgrounds and include former collegiate track, basketball and field hockey players as well as body builders and mixed martial arts fighters.

“One thing that surprises new fans is how athletic these women really are,” Suggett said. “If you look at their backgrounds, you see a lot of our players have played college sports. That’s what makes it fun, when you get to teach them a new offense and they have the athletic ability to pull it off.”

Peterson said that her only real frustration comes when she has to explain that the Surge aren’t a gimmick or a recreation league team, but are playing real tackle football with helmets and pads.

“The most common response I get when I tell people that I play football is ‘Oh like that lingerie team? Where you play in your underwear?’” she said. “That annoys me to no end.  I don’t think anyone can really fully comprehend what we go through and the commitment it takes to be a part of it.”

The Surge practice every Monday and Thursday, with occasional weekend practices held during bye weeks. Players are also expected to work out on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, either at a team-sponsored cross-fit gym in San Diego or on their own. For Peterson, who now lives in Los Angeles, the time-consuming commute adds to the challenge.

In addition to the time commitment, there are other costs to playing for the Surge. Financially, Peterson and her teammates pay annual dues of $350 and equipment costs can be as high as $800. And physically there are a lot of aches and pains over the course of the season.

“My body has aged quickly in these last three years and I have some wonderful scars,” she said, adding that her students at Crenshaw Arts and Technology Charter High School in Los Angeles, where she taught physical education and health, think that she is “cool” for playing the game.

The effort and sacrifice of Peterson and her teammates has paid off in a big way. This season the Surge outscored their opponents 592-48 and had a perfect 8-0 regular season record for the second year in a row. They are 22-1 overall, including playoff games, over the last two years, but that one loss was a painful one, coming in the 2011 WFA Championship game as the Surge lost to the Boston Militia, 34-19.

“That was the most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever experienced in sports,” Peterson said. “We went in with so much confidence, but Boston came to play. I think we learned a valuable lesson from it and it has ultimately helped us step our game up even more this year. Personally, I am much more focused and there is a feeling of unfinished business. Nothing we do means anything until we win this next game.”

Peterson said she is both excited and nervous for the championship game, which is scheduled to kickoff at 1 p.m. Pacific time, but not just because it is the team’s second chance at a title. Rather, it is the significance of the game being played at an NFL stadium and broadcast online via ESPN3 and her role within it.

“I remember seeing A League of Their Own as a kid and wanting so badly to be a professional baseball player. Then in middle school, when I started focusing on basketball, I remember writing in my goal journal about wanting to win a gold medal in the Olympics,” she recalled. “What’s interesting is that I never thought about it when I first started playing football. I just started playing because the opportunity was there and I loved the game. Then once I started looking around and realizing the caliber of athletes I was playing with, I realized that I was part of something truly unique and special. And now that this game is being held at Heinz Field, I am in that moment where it’s all happening.”

“I am so grateful for this experience, I know the only thing that is going to top this feeling is getting married and having kids,” she added.

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