By David Green
MURRAY -- Jessica Holder doesn’t permit herself to fantasize about what might have been.
If she did, oh – the possibilities.
Holder came out of a Marshall County High School basketball career as the school’s all-time leading scorer, boys or girls, and as one of the top-priority recruits of Murray State coach Rob Cross.
She had size, at 6-1, and plenty of basketball skill and athletic ability to go along with it.
“I really believed when we signed her we were signing somebody who was going to average about 20 [points] and 12 [rebounds] for her career here at Murray State, at least a double-double,” Cross said.
The glorious college career, the possible WNBA opportunity, all that was interrupted – by a Morton’s neuroma.
That’s the technical name for an injury to a nerve in the foot. According to the website PubMed Health, it commonly affects the nerve that travels between the third and fourth toes and causes thickening and pain.
Terrible, debilitating pain, as Jessica learned.
From youth leagues right up through high school, Holder had no experience dealing with injuries.
“Bruises,” she said. “Nothing to complain about.”
Nothing to affect her play. Nothing to require medical attention.
Then, after high school, after 98 wins, 2,378 points and 1,203 rebounds, with only a 64-63, double-overtime upset by Calloway County keeping her from four straight trips to the Sweet Sixteen, after signing a grant-in-aid to play at the Division I level of NCAA basketball at the school where she wanted to play, came a life-changing physical obstacle.
The left foot began to hurt as Holder began preseason conditioning her freshman year at Murray. She played through it.
She started in 19 games and saw action in 30. She scored 11 points and tied a school record with five blocked shots in her first game, at Alabama A&M.
“At the end of that year, I had my first surgery and they just cut out the bad nerve and it re-grew,” she said.
In 2010-11, she had limited action in five games and was redshirted because of the injury.
That season, in December 2010, she had her second surgery, at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
“They cut it out again and cauterized it, but it grew back again,” she said.
She sat out all of last season and underwent a third surgical procedure in December of 2011. That time, a nerve was removed from her left arm and implanted in the injured foot.
“I have a pretty mean scar,” she said. She also has a loss of some of the feeling in her left hand.
“Now I’m getting shots every month to try to help it quiet down a little bit,” she said. “It could take two to three years because nerves grow so slowly.”
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Rob Cross had known Jessica since she was a middle school player who attended MSU basketball camps. He knew her family and her older brother, Jimmie Lee, who also played for Murray after a stellar career at Marshall County.
“When I was named head coach, she was the first person I wanted to try to sign and get committed in that recruiting class,” said Cross, who was promoted from assistant to head coach at the end of the 2008 season. “It was a no-brainer for me. The first time I called her, she said she was happy I called. She’d been waiting for me to call. That was exciting to hear.”
Mariah Robinson, the senior leader of this year’s Racers team, came to Murray in the same freshman class.
“I watched her play a little bit in high school at the state tournament,” said Robinson, who starred at Ohio County High School. “Our freshman year, she was a baller. Freakishly athletic, kind of quiet but emotional when it comes to the game. You could tell she was very competitive and passionate. Very versatile player.”
Robinson, like Cross, had high hopes for the four years ahead of them in Racer blue and gold.
As the pain became worse, Robinson said the effect on Holder was obvious, but she kept on doggedly and did all she could to adapt.
“She knew that she could use her athleticism,” Robinson said. “She was blocking shots left and right.”
“She really was playing on one leg her freshman year,” Cross said. “She led us in field goal percentage. She led us with, I think it was, six rebounds per game. And her playing time was limited to about 15 minutes because of the injury that she had.
“There were so many bright spots.”
But there was also a terribly dark side. The early treatment, Cross said, was “to inflict pain and activate the nerve that had gone haywire.”
She would become physically ill from the pain and report to the practice floor in tears, Cross said.
“I felt bad for the trainer, because she’s basically torturing somebody, and I felt bad for Jessica, because she’s getting tortured,” Cross said.
He decided to end the torture and seek an alternative. That’s when the series of surgeries began, although it wasn’t supposed to be a series.
“The first doctor told me, three weeks and I’ll be back to running,” Holder said. “Then, when it got to like the fourth and the fifth week, I said, ‘OK, something’s not right.’ I was freaking out a little bit.”
This was new territory for a naturally gifted athlete.
“I was scared,” she said. “I don’t know that I’ve ever admitted that to anybody. My mom was scared, my dad was scared. My dad has been pretty positive throughout, optimistic, which is good, because you need that.”
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Going into tonight’s game at home against SIU-Edwardsville, Holder has seen action in 11 games, with a high of 14 minutes against New Orleans on Feb. 6. She’s averaging just under six minutes per appearance and has scored 11 points and collected 11 rebounds.
The limited playing time and the limited numbers on the stat sheet are a far cry from her high school career and from the expectations for her college playing days.
“It’s one of the more disappointing things for me how her career has gone to this point because of the injury she’s dealt with,” Cross said.
Holder assesses herself honestly.
“I’m definitely a little bit slower than I used to be, and I overcompensate with my right foot, I don’t jump as high,” she said. “All that comes back. I’ve noticed my jumping is coming back. My speed is getting there. But it’s definitely very slow and very frustrating.”
She takes a philosophical attitude about what has happened to her.
“They say play every minute like it could be your last, and that’s no joke,” Holder said. “But I’m very grateful and very blessed for God to have given me the opportunity. Even if I get in [a game] for only four minutes, that’s four minutes I might not have gotten if I hadn’t gotten to where I am now.”
She credits her coach for his patience, his understanding and his concern. Cross is disappointed only that Holder has been hampered by something beyond her control.
“She’s gone through a lot,” he said. “I’m happy that she’s able to get back on the floor and looking forward to the day that she’s pain free and can run and do the things that she normally did before.”
There’s still another year of eligibility and Cross is maintaining an optimistic attitude.
“She’s persevered through a lot and deserves to be back on the court and end her career the right way,” he said.
But if fully restored health is not in the cards, Cross still thinks Murray made an excellent choice in recruiting Holder.
“We certainly got what we expected as a student and a person,” he said. “As for the basketball part, hopefully that’s still ahead of her.”