Few players return from a women’s basketball team that posted a 16-13 record and made a trip to Nashville, Tenn., as an 8-seed in the OVC Tournament.
This year features a new team and a fresh start for Head Coach Rob Cross.
“We have a lot of question marks right now because we just don’t know what we have with the season because many haven’t played a collegiate game yet,” Cross said.
Returning from last season is a single starter and the team’s only senior, Jessica Winfrey, whose leadership is unquestioned on the team. Winfrey has battled injuries throughout her career at Murray State but Cross expects her to return to the numbers fans saw in her freshman campaign when she averaged a double-double.
“This was the first time she had an off-season that was a healthy off-season since then so I’m hoping she can return to that form,” Cross said.
It could be argued that the biggest question with the team would be who replaces Mariah Robinson, who led the team last season with 16.8 points per game. Junior guard Keiona Kirby is expected to step into the role. Kirby showed flashes of the ability to create instant offense in appearances off the bench last season.
“I was kind of nervous having to take over the role that Mariah left but I’ve been waiting for this opportunity since my freshman year,” Kirby said.
Kirby and the Racers’ offense will continue to run Cross’ up-tempo offense that showcases their shooting skill from behind the arc. Last season the team shot more than 600 3-pointers but connected on just 30 percent of those shots. Cross hopes that the recruiting class he has brought in will improve on that number.
The freshmen shooting list includes guard Janssen Starks, who led Kentucky her senior season in triples made, guard Julia Fox, who made more than 200 3-pointers in her high school career and Taylor Porter, who finished third in Kentucky with just more than 25 points per contest.
While Cross is excited about the high school statistics, college basketball is a different game, he said.
“Almost every single girl playing in college basketball was the best player on their team in high school so you don’t know how the girls are going to adjust to playing the higher competition,” Cross said.
The Racers have seven freshmen, including three point guards who will have to develop to the college game quickly thanks to the team’s tough nonconference schedule that includes trips to Evansville, Western Kentucky and Xavier. Cross said the opening games are critical for his young team and they will have to stay focused and maintain their confidence level. The goal is a simple one: to prepare for the conference games.
“We are going to see everything we need to before the conference portion of the schedule comes around,” Cross said.
With such a young and new team, practices this summer were important as the team prepared for the season. Cross said he is pleased with how the team is learning his style of play but won’t allow youth to be an excuse.
“We are not going to allow them to use the freshman excuse to not know what is going on during the game or in practice,” Cross said.
The Racers have had great guards with Cross at the helm of the program and this season should be no different. Starks, Porter and Nikia Edom are all expected to occupy major roles.
“Three freshmen guards are going to play key roles for us, and I don’t know if that is a good thing or a bad thing but we will find out as soon as we start playing in front of people,” Cross said.
The Racers’ front court is led by Winfrey and Netanya Jackson. Jackson is not a new face to the program, but fans will get to see her in action for the first time this season after being redshirted last year. Jackson, who towers over the team at 6’4,” spent the time off getting into shape and dropped more than 100 pounds.
Winfrey said the hard work has not gone unnoticed.
“I’m so proud of Netanya for all the hard work she has put in this year and she is going to be a beast this season for us,” Winfrey said.
Cross also said the hard work has made a difference in Jackson’s gameplay.
“Netanya is a defensive mistake eliminator,” Cross said. “When you have a girl that tall, she makes up for a lot but she is still trying to adjust to her new body which will take some time.”
The expectations for the team this year are simple for Cross: make the OVC Tournament because anything can happen once the tournament starts. Winfrey and her teammates have much bigger expectations.
“I really think there is no way we can’t be in the top three of the conference because we are looking so good,” Winfrey said. “We are going after that OVC Championship. That is what we want.”
The Racers begin their journey toward that goal tonight as they host Robert Morris-Springfield at 7 p.m. at the CFSB Center.
Story by Tom Via, Staff writer