By TOM BONE
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
The old saying goes, you don’t know how much you miss something until you don’t have it anymore.
Ashley Culicerto, a senior at Princeton Senior High School, lived that saying while trying to recover from a knee injury so she could return to play basketball for one more season.
“Before, you’d go out, go through the routine at practice,” she said. “You’d get out of a game and get home late. Now, I’m excited to go to practice, every single day, and I’m excited to play every game.
“It’s so aggravating, if you have a bad game or if you lose. But just being on the court, and being able to learn and get better, still, it’s everything.”
“I didn’t think it was going to happen.”
She tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her knee in July, playing in a basketball scrimmage game that pitted some of Princeton’s team with girls from Tolsia High School.
She said, “In the last 30 seconds of the game, I jumped, and on my way up, it just popped.”
A couple of weeks passed before the MRI report came back, confirming the ligament was torn and surgery would be required. The surgery had to wait until Sept. 13.
“They said after surgery, it’s usually about six to nine months” before she could compete again, she said. That meant a lost chance to play her fall sport, soccer.
She did get the doctors to approve a “cameo appearance” in the final home soccer match on Senior Night.
“I got to go out and kick it,” she said. “They just let me kick it out of bounds and come back off.”
“It was heart-warming, but devastating at the same time, because that’s the last time I’d have that jersey on, and be on the field with ‘Princeton’ across my chest. It was nice to actually have that chance, but it was sad, knowing it was my last time.”
The rehabilitation process continued, under the guidance of Princeton physical therapist John “Jabo” Williams, after she got off her crutches.
She recalled, “I would go to therapy and he would make me lift weights. At first, I couldn’t even flex it (the knee joint). I didn’t have the muscle to even flex.”
“I went to Jabo about two or three times a week. ... Soon enough, progressively, I could see it. I started being able to flex it, able to lift more weights, do more reps, and then, eventually, running.”
“It was long,” she said. “It seemed like forever, but looking back, it doesn’t feel that long.”
When basketball practice began, there was a big hole in the lineup. Culicerto was the only senior expected to return for the Tigers, who had a new coach, former Princeton star point guard Tesla Akers.
Akers involved Culicerto with the team at every turn, while waiting for her to get cleared to play again.
Akers said, “She and I have a great relationship. I’ve watched her grow up. Being a year behind my sister (2013 graduate McKenzie Akers) has really touched home for me. I helped with soccer, and she played soccer..”
Culicerto said, “I just came to practice every day. If they needed somebody to work the clock, I would work the clock. If they needed an extra ball, I’d go to the ball rack and get them a ball. If somebody needed a refill, I’d give them some water.”
“During the game, I’d help keep stats, and I’d try to keep the team pumped and encourage them (during) timeouts and everything. Just kind of moral support.”
“I didn’t want to miss anything, even if I can’t play,” she said. “Definitely, I was still here.”
Akers said, “When she was on the bench, she was as mad as I was when we weren’t playing how we should have been. She has a great drive for the game, a desire. That’s not something you teach; she just has it.”
“She was my only returnee from a varsity standpoint. She was the only one. She told them, ‘You all will be fine without me. You all know how to play. You just never got the opportunity.’ ”
With the coaching change, Culicerto was hesitant to do much “teaching,” though.
“There were a few things I would try to help with, and mentor them, because I knew I could, but with a different coach ... I didn’t step in, because I didn’t know.
“But things I did know, and that were similar, I’d try to help. ‘Use your legs’ and all that stuff.”
Following the game strategy from the bench was instructive.
“You see a lot more, sitting on the sidelines,” she said. “It helps you realize some things. You see, on a press, either the reverse is open, or you pass it back. You definitely see a lot more on the sidelines that you can take onto the court. I definitely learned a lot from that.”
Akers said that her senior got to “listen to me yell ... .” She added, “By the time she got out (to play), she was seeing the court. ... I think that’s a big thing for her. I think she saw (for instance) that our guards don’t crash the boards, and that’s something she never did. And she does now.”
She observed “when is it a good time to push the ball, and when is it a good time to slow it up. She couldn’t have gotten that by playing all the time. She got to see it firsthand. I think it did help her a little bit.”
That new temporary role was also frustrating to a teenager who still wanted to play.
“Oh Lord,” Akers said. “She was gritting her teeth; she was hitting lockers, when she was mad. She’s right out there with them, even if she was sitting over here.”
“The early Shady game, we lost by three, and she had tears in her eyes. She said, ‘I know I’d have given you four points!’ That’s how she thinks about it.”
Then came a day Culicerto will long remember: Jan. 10, the day she got her doctor’s release to play again.
Culicerto said, “I wasn’t sure if I was going to get released, but when I did, I came back into practice the next day and screamed, ‘I’m released!’ I was so excited.”
“We had a game the next day, and I got to play,” she said. “My first home game back, I scored 12, I believe, against Summers County.”
She looked at things a little differently.
“Definitely, after I got released to play, I would appreciate every day of practice and every single game, that much more,” she said.
Her parents, Shelley and Kenny Culicerto, were part of the equation as well.
Ashley said, “Mom was hesitant at first, just because she’s protective. Of course, Dad is, too. But they both, ever since I’ve been back on the court, and have played without getting hurt, they are very supportive — and happy to watch me.”
The senior is obviously happy, despite the Tigers’ lack of wins in a rebuilding season. All of its players, other than Culicerto, had never had a varsity start until this season.
Culicerto and Akers had talked, and texted, about that.
Culicerto said, “Once Coach Akers actually got the job, she got my number, and we would text some. She wanted a motto for the year, and she thought ‘Challenge Accepted’ would be appropriate, where we’re so young.”
“She wanted me to help lead, because we didn’t think I was even going to be able to play. We knew it was going to be a challenge, and that turned out to be our motto. But we work hard to make up for that, our youth and inexperience, every day.”
She sees that progress paying off, now and in future years.
“Oh gosh, there’s so much potential,” she said. “Playing under Coach Akers, there’s so much encouragement. You learn so much, every day. You can tell from our season — maybe our record doesn’t show it — but you can see, every game, we’ve gotten better and better.”
“We’re starting to be able to compete better with all of the hard teams in the MSAC (Mountain State Athletic Conference).”
“We have a lot of athletic girls; it’s just the inexperience and the silly mistakes, the little things. But there’s a lot of potential.”
She said about her new coach’s enthusiasm for the sport and her players, “Oh my gosh, it’s amazing. We all love playing under her. We have so much respect, playing under somebody who you know was that talented.”
“Timeouts, huddles, practices, we’re always learning. She tells us what we need to do when we’re not doing things right ... but she’s very rewarding when we need to be rewarded.”
Asked about her plans after graduating this spring, she said, “I think I’m going to WVU. I’m going to major in exercise physiology, and hopefully go to PT (physical trainers’) school after that.”
Rehabilitating her knee with Williams has had an impact.
“I love going to Jabo, and loved what he did, so I think I would like that,” she said. “He’s great. I so much respect him. Getting (me) back to play, it’s all because of him. He told me what to do, and motivated me and told me I could. He’s great.”
Akers said, “She has a commitment to her teammates, on and off the floor. She’s the one who orchestrates all their bonding, off the court. She did that when she was hurt — and moreso now that she’s playing.”
“She’s their vocal leader. She’s the one telling them ‘what Coach would expect.’ (On the court), she shows them the type of commitment that I want, and sets that example.”
“I think, to an extent, she was like an older sister to them, while she was out,” Akers said. “They look up to her.”
— Contact Tom Bone at