Alicia Garcia's wait is finally over.
The senior last put on a Muscatine High School basketball uniform on Feb. 16, 2019, when MHS lost in the first round of the Class 5A Region 1 tournament, when Iowa City High ended Muscatine's season with a 63-51 win.
Garcia's dynamic freshman and sophomore campaigns led to an offer and commitment to the University of Northern Iowa, but a severe knee injury forced her to miss the entirety of the 2019-20 season.
As if reconstructive knee surgery and rehab wasn't enough, being on the doorstep of the season only to have it taken away again when the COVID-19 pandemic created a situation where MHS went virtual and put an end to all athletic practices and games for two weeks almost took things to a Shakespearean level of untimely misfortune.
The Muskies' season is finally slated to officially get underway Friday night when the team hosts Central DeWitt, with tip-off scheduled for about 7:30 p.m.
The journey back for the senior has been a grind both mentally and physically. After knee surgery, building leg muscles back up proved also to be quite a hurdle during rehab, she said.
"Working through that was hard, but once I was able to lift my leg again - I'll always remember that feeling - after that I just wanted to get to the court as soon as possible but still be healthy," said Garcia. "There were a lot of mentally tough days I had to get through and still am having to get through."
But if any positives came from it, Garcia believes she sees the court better now having spent a year on the sideline.
"You see a lot more, I realized," she said. "A lot of people were telling me I'd see more than when I play, and I did. I saw it with my position, I saw it with (the guards), I saw a lot of things that coach (Susan) Orvis talks about ... Being able to see it, now I can put that into my game and have it in the back of my head."
In her absence, Muscatine had a respectable season in a tough Mississippi Athletic Conference. Orvis guided the Muskies to a .500 record both in conference and overall, finishing 11-11, 8-8 in Mississippi Athletic Conference play.
The Muskies enter this season ranked No. 12 in Class 5A.
Most of the scoring load last year was put on guard Zoey Long.
"The MAC is going to be really good again this year, but we just have to go out and play hard every night," Long said. "We're still getting back in the flow after (the break due to the coronavirus), but practices have been going well."
Long, now a senior as well, responded by going for a team-best 13 points per game while ranking third on the team in assists with just a shade over one a game. Emily Woepking was tops in the category with 1.8 a contest, followed by Rylie Moss (1.4).
Woepking, however, was the only senior on the squad then, and is the only one of the seven players who started at least one game last season not returning.
So while Muscatine works on integrating Garcia back into the lineup, the team feels uniquely positioned to hit the ground running in spite of all the injuries, time lost and reshuffling of the schedule.
"It's always fun to play in an environment (and conference) where anybody could beat anybody on any given night," Orvis said. "That's an exciting way to play, but at the same time, you have to be prepared every night and be consistent.
"It'll be interesting to see who can be most consistent."
Regardless, the Muskies feature an intriguing inside-out mix that has had the program circling this season years ago as being a real program-builder.
"We're really exciting about what we bring back," said Orvis. "In Alicia's absence, we got a lot of significant, meaningful minutes and were in some tight, competitive situations. We all grew and got better from those. Hopefully now we can cash in on some of those experiences. We took our lessons, but hopefully gained some confidence from that."
Long is already the school's all-time career leader in 3-point makes with 129.
Madi Petersen led the team in rebounds in 2019-20 with 8.6 boards per game while also chipping in almost seven points and one block over the course of the season.
Petersen, Avarie Eagle and Meadow Freers could hypothetically join Garcia in a lineup that would give the Muskies' four players at or around 6-feet tall. And there wouldn't necessarily be issues with overlapping skill sets as Eagle has shown an ability to play on the perimeter and the other three can set up in either the high or low post.
Freers, however, not not started a game for the Muskies yet, though the junior could see an increase in playing time even with all the returning pieces.
"We just want to go out there this season and leave it all out there," Petersen said, "play every game like it's our last."
Eagle, a senior, made nine of 25 3-point attempts as a junior. Her 36% mark was best on the team among players with 20 attempts or more.
Long was 52-160 (32.5%) from long range, while Grace Bode, a junior this year, was also efficient from 3, though on limited attempts, going 8-for-19.
While the team returns plenty that offers an impressive set of statistics that would be the envy of any coach, the Muskies envision a team that is made complete by seniors Rylie Moss and Emma Zillig.
Zillig started 15 of 21 games for MHS a year ago while Moss started all 21.
Zillig scored 68 points over the course of her junior campaign, and at 5-foot-9, brings additional length and athleticism to the backcourt.
The super-competitive Moss returns as perhaps the Muskies' best perimeter defender. Though she only scored about a point a game, the gritty 5-foot-6 Moss fought her way to grabbing 3.5 rebounds per game for last year's Muskies, which was second only to Petersen.
Whether by injury, weather or global pandemic, the Muskies have been all too aware how quickly games can be taken away. But that has only brought out a more focused group that wants to make the most of whatever time they have left together.
"Being out there this season means everything," Garcia said. "It's been mentally (challenging) sitting and watching everyone else do the thing you love. But I was still glad I was able to watch and cheer them on.
"But now it's go time."