Even when standing among her South all-star teammates that includes an NCAA Division I basketball player, Noelle Peterson stands out. The three-time all-state basketball selection has dealt with heartache and loss for the majority of her young life, and as a way of working through that she’s always decided to give back.
Maybe being chosen to participate in Saturday’s Wyoming Coaches Foundation All-Star Girls Basketball Game at Swede Erickson Thunderbird Gym isn’t the most fitting sendoff for one of Encampment’s finest, but it’s already been an experience she treasures. Especially since it was something her father couldn’t finish.
“It’s been exciting to play with all of these girls and just to have this opportunity is really amazing,” she said. “I’m really thankful for this opportunity.”
Vance Peterson was a teacher, coach and a father. He grew up in Riverton, played basketball at Eastern Wyoming College and met his wife in Newcastle. They were married in Sheridan and moved to Encampment, where he coached the Tigers from 1999-2006. In that final year the Tigers finished third at state, their best in over 30 years, and Peterson was selected to coach the South team in the Wyoming All-Star Basketball Game. He lost his battle with lung cancer a week before that game. He was 37.
His daughter, Noelle, was just 5 then. And her brother, Dalton, was only 3. Those were admittedly tough times for the two, but motivated by the outreach and support they received from the community, Noelle decided she’d spread that support to everyone in need.
“That’s where all my motivation for this came from,” she said. “I’ve helped younger kids with cancer and fighting medical illnesses. I’ve made cancer caps and donated coloring books for kids at St. Jude’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.”
Over the past three years it’s estimated that she’s donated over 150 caps and coloring books to St. Jude’s. For that alone she was involved in the Wyoming Congressional Award and the national Prudential Spirit of Community Award. Additionally, it’s estimated that she’s volunteered over 600 hours in just the past 5 years working on various projects helping veterans, mentoring and with community beautification. All of them are rewarding, with mentoring hitting home a little harder.
“It’s really touching to mentor younger kids and show them what it means to be a leader,” Peterson said.
And Peterson knows something about leading. She was an immediate standout at Encampment, playing in all 27 games as a freshman. Along with the upperclassmen, Peterson and classmate Paige Powell were a promising force that Class 1A doesn’t often get to see. As sophomores Powell and Peterson dominated, leading to the Tigers to their first state championship in over a decade. Hopes of a repeat the next year were dashed with a semifinal upset at the hands of Snake River. Then, that following summer, Peterson was left all alone. Powell, and her family, moved to Cody.
“It was definitely tough,” Peterson admitted. “It was an adjustment for us because she had been playing with us since she moved there in second grade. So she’d been playing with us forever and we were pretty close being in the same classes and stuff. So it was definitely hard.
“We had to rally together saying we can’t let her move get in the way of our season. We had to rally together and do with what we had.”
The Tigers finished with a losing record and missed the playoffs. Not the most fitting way for Peterson to end her basketball career. That’s part of the reason why getting the invitation for this week’s game meant so much.
“It’s such a great feeling,” she said. “I never thought I’d get an opportunity like this. I’m so thankful. Especially for my community, which helps support me. I want to go out there and show them thank you.”
Peterson treasured her time at Encampment. She loved her teammates, coaches and, obviously, community. She said that graduating and leaving high school behind was bittersweet. But this weekend gives her quality time with new teammates and a final, decisive curtain call to high school.
She’ll likely still find a way to volunteer even now that she prepares for college. In the fall she’ll start classes at the University of Wyoming, majoring in elementary education. So her compassion and mentoring can be passed on for generations to come.