Fifth-year senior Alyssa Michalke has only played 15 minutes this season. Yet the first-year college athlete has earned as much respect as a seasoned veteran, her teammates and coaches say.
After four years of service in the Corps of Cadets, including rising to become the first female Corps commander, Michalke’s eligibility expired. With some hours left to complete in her degree, she turned her focus to a new challenge -- walking on the Texas A&M women’s basketball team.
“Alyssa has been a great leader for us,” A&M junior starting center Khaalia Hillsman said. “I think that’s really why she came over here, so she could sprinkle her leadership all over us.”
Michalke established herself as a leader on Texas A&M’s campus early in her time in Aggieland. She earned the most outstanding freshman and sophomore designations for Company B-1 in First Brigade after her first two years on campus. She was also named a distinguished student for the Fall 2013 semester as a member of the O.R. Simpson Honor Society.
"I knew I wasn’t going to play Division I sports right away as a freshman, so I had to find something else that’s going to challenge me and really develop more as a leader,” Michalke said. “I had a few captain roles in high school on a few various teams, and I learned a lot about leadership there and teamwork as well, but I knew I wanted to further [expand] upon that in college, and the Corps gave me a great outlet for that.”
Forty years after women were first allowed to join the Corps, Michalke was named the first female Corps commander for the 2015-16 school year.
The historic selection put Michalke in the national spotlight, with outlets including CNN profiling her rise to leadership. She told The Eagle on several occasions that she reaped the benefits of female Corps members that paved the way before her.
Michalke served as commander of 2,520 cadets, which was the largest Corps since 1970. (Over the last three years, female participation in the Corps has grown from 345 cadets to 400.) While Michalke was in command, grade-point averages hit record highs, with cadets earning a 3.06 in the Spring 2016 semester, according to the Corps.
“She and her leadership team did an exceptional job this year,” Corps Commandant Brig. Gen. Joe Ramirez told The Eagle last spring. “This was a very good year for our Corps in many ways, and I attribute a lot of that to Alyssa, her leadership and the leadership of her senior leaders in the Corps.”
Michalke still made time to practice her first and greatest love -- basketball. After her freshman year, she was named the most valuable player for the Corps basketball team.
However, she said it wasn’t the same rush she felt playing basketball and several other sports for Schulenburg High School, 95 miles southwest of College Station.
There, her competitive nature knew no bounds, Michalke’s high school basketball coach Tandy Betak said.
In one game, the feisty point guard sustained a deep cut that spanned the length of her face, from ear to jaw, he said. After a quick application of medical supplies, Michalke demanded a return to the court, without regard for her appearance or health, Betak said.
“That was Alyssa in a nutshell,” he said. “You couldn’t keep her off the court. Little minor injuries, I’d say, ‘You need to come off the court,’ and she’d say, ‘No, keep me in here. My team needs me and I need to lead my team.’ That’s just Alyssa.”
Michalke was a TGCA 2A All-State basketball standout at Schulenburg, but also lettered in golf and cross country. She was named the 28-2A First Team All-District catcher for the softball team in 2011.
“Sports taught me really how to push yourself and challenge yourself,” Michalke said. “That’s what drove me to keep playing sports, is to keep getting better and keep improving yourself, whether it was on the basketball court, softball field or in the weight room. Just always getting better.”
While her basketball skills were recognized in awards and honors, it was Michalke’s leadership that separated her in Betak’s eyes.
“She is easily one of my top two or three kids that I’ve ever coached in the amount of leadership she possessed," he said, "and knowing I could go to her in a crunch time or situation and say, 'This is what needs to get done,' and she would execute it."
Four years of refinement in the Corps harnessed Michalke’s competitive nature, she said.
“If you look at some of my old high school tapes, I was very hot-headed,” she said. “I was kind of immature. I would trash talk. I didn’t really appreciate what I had. I always took it for granted. I think now that I’ve had my time in the Corps, had four years to grow up a little bit and learn more about leadership, I’ve matured.”
At A&M, it had been several years since women’s basketball coach Gary Blair took a walk-on from the annual tryouts. When Michalke displayed her talent, Blair said he could see how she could help the team. The program needed depth at the point guard position, and she could be an asset running the scout team offense, he said.
For Michalke, playing basketball for a Division I school had always been a dream, she said, but it wasn’t until she was finished with her Corps eligibility that she had the time to make the commitment.
“I was always itching to get back into it, but I just didn’t really have time,” she said. “Over the summers, I tried to play some pick-up games, but it’s just not the same with everyone just playing for fun.”
Michalke’s leadership presented a invaluable addition to the program, according to Blair, a former Marine.
“I’m so fired up as a coach just with the student body here, what they mean to this school and the culture,” he said. “Alyssa embodies that when she comes to practice every day. She’s not just thinking basketball, she’s thinking what I can do to help the team on and off the court.”
“She has that voice that some of us haven’t developed because she’s been in that lead role,” sophomore guard Danni Williams said.
Michalke’s playing time is limited to late-game situations that find the Aggies up big or when the game is out of hand. To date, she has netted six points in those 15 minutes. But those points might be the most deserved in the program, Blair said.
“She’s always in here putting the extra work in,” he said. “In fact, she puts more work in than a lot of the kids on my team, and I want that to change. I want them to put in the extra work, the ones that are on scholarship.”
Her effort and character have been rewarded in the stands as well. Blair said he’s seen an increase in attendance from members of the Corps, beyond the games that are mandatory for the cadets to attend.
“It doesn’t hurt having Alyssa Michalke as a former Corps commander, because she has a lot of friends, and I think that’s what we’re doing,” Blair said. “We’re getting a lot of those students back when they do not have to be here. They’re coming back on their own and thanks to Alyssa for that.”
Inevitably, it’s a voice in the uniformed throng that begins chanting Michalke’s first name as the game reaches its final minutes. The group lets out a rowdy yell when she runs over to the scorers table.
Betak traveled to Aggieland to see Michalke suit up for the Aggies’ bout against Stephen F. Austin. His former player didn’t log any minutes in the game, but he said he felt the gravity of Michalke’s accomplishments while sitting in the stands.
“I was bawling in the stands, because the kid met one of her dreams," he said. "And if you think about everything she’s done in her college career, what a great individual to have associated with the university.”
Michalke, an ocean and civil engineering major, will graduate in May and already has a job lined up at a manufacturing company just outside of Dallas.
When she considers her time in Aggieland, Michalke said that she participated in the highest of highs, leading the Corps into Kyle Field every football game day. She has also felt the rush of wearing an A&M basketball jersey in Reed Arena. Both are equally sweet in their own right, she said.
“They know that you’re putting in the time and effort at practice,” she said. “You might not play a lot, but you’re still coming out every single day and you’re still working hard every single day. For them to know that and appreciate that and acknowledge that when I get in the game, that’s just awesome.”