Winfrey leads by example, looks to hang OVC banner

Jessica Winfrey has had her moments in the spotlight on the court for the Racers.

She was named to the OVC All-Newcomer team after the 2010-11 season and finished in the NCAA top 50 in rebounds, recording 9.7 boards per game. She also averaged 10.6 points.

But she has had her fair share of adversity, having to overcome injuries that have taken two years away from her game.

Winfrey was redshirted as a freshman during the 2009-10 season and again for the 2011-12 campaign due to injuries.

“(Recovery) was tough but I definitely knew that I wanted to be back out on the court, so I had to do it,” Winfrey said. “Whenever I’m dedicated to something I don’t want it to stop.”

She said she knew college would be the highest level of basketball she played because she has been hurt so much.

With that in mind, Winfrey pushed through in order to play one final season.

“I knew I had to get back out there,” she said. “I had that mentality I wasn’t going to stop. I have to finish this.”

The dream of college basketball began early for Winfrey after being introduced to the game by her father, Stan Winfrey.

“My dad was not going to let me play anything else,” she said. “I’ve been playing basketball since I was able to dribble a ball. My dad introduced me to basketball and I’m very grateful for that even though as a young girl I was like, ‘Dad, I don’t want to do this. Oh my gosh can I just go play with Barbies?’ ”

Her life in basketball, however, almost came to a sudden halt.

As Winfrey neared her senior year of high school, the highly touted junior suffered a potential career-ending injury that made some college scouts think twice about bringing her into their programs.

But sitting out only made the Arkansas native want to pursue the game she loves more.

“I knew in junior high I was thinking maybe college basketball would be fun,” Winfrey said. “I was still enjoying it and I didn’t want to stop playing. It was kind of one of those things.”

She said getting hurt actually helped her realize how much she loved the game. After tearing her ACL, college recruits stopped looking at her.

“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t want to be without basketball, what am I going to do?’ ” she said. “So it was like I had to work hard, I have to do better, I want to play college basketball and that’s what triggered it for me.”

Winfrey said after sustaining her injury, the attention she still received by Murray State Head Coach Rob Cross and his staff made her decision to become a Racer an easy one, despite losing the chance to play at a power conference school.

“I was technically supposed to be going to Kansas State, but they stopped looking at me once I tore my ACL,” Winfrey said. “Murray State was always in the mix. Coach Cross was always on me and all the former coaches always talked to me and were very positive people.”

She said after she tore her ACL, Cross still talked to her and was interested in her.

“I just felt so blessed and I knew that Murray State was where I needed to be,” Winfrey said.

And as the sixth year head coach, Cross has high hopes for his only senior.

“Winfrey has looked really good in our scrimmages and practices,” Cross said. “She averaged a double-double as a freshman, and this was the first time she had an offseason that was a healthy offseason since then, so I’m hoping she can return to that form. “

Cross said he expects those types of numbers out of her as a fifth year senior. He said she leads the team in practice and has been a vocal leader for the new players.

He’s not alone in his expectations.

Winfrey has high hopes for this year’s team, even though they are filled with lowerclassmen.

“Before every season, we meet together as a team and we talk about the goals that we want to set for ourselves as far as now and in the future,” Winfrey said. “And we are going for that conference and OVC Championship. That is what we want.”

While the goal of a championship is partially one for Winfrey has set for herself, she said it’s all centered around her team.

But her goal is not only to win. It’s also about the legacy she wants to leave for the future of Racer basketball.

“I want to be able to leave with a championship,” she said. “I want to be remembered. I want to be a great positive leader. I just want to have an impact on my team. I want them to know that I want this for them.”

Winfrey said she realizes she is looked up to.

“I have to show what it’s like to be a college athlete,” she said. “I have to lead by example. I have to do these things so these freshmen can grow up and be seniors that do these things for other people.”

With the success of the men’s team, the women’s team’s accomplishments have been overshadowed, but Winfrey is determined to step into the spotlight.

“I love our men’s team,” she said. “You see a lot of people at the men’s games and all this kind of stuff. I want people to know that we have a good team too.”

She said she wants fans to know they can support the women, too, and the team will show them a good time.

“There hasn’t been a banner for the women in awhile,” Winfrey said. “We’re going to change that.”

Story by Nick Dolan, Assistant Sports Editor