By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
STARKVILLE, Miss. – CJ Winship embraces the role of protector.
When she’s on the soccer field, the 5-foot-8 Mississippi State goalkeeper spends her days relentlessly guarding her team’s goal against opposing attacks. Under Winship’s leadership, the Bulldogs rank tied for first in the Southeastern Conference in saves per game at 5.62 and she is among the top-five individually in stops at 4.14 per game.
“CJ is intense and trying to win in everything that we do,” said Mississippi State’s first-year head coach Aaron Gordon. “She is the first one to pick someone up, the first one to encourage and the first one that gets on someone when it’s needed, but she does it in a tactful way. Those are all such good qualities, but I think her intensity really makes us better.”
It is a mindset and a passion that will serve her well in her chosen career field of law enforcement, a profession that centers on protecting the public.
“It all stems from protection,” Winship said by telephone Tuesday from Starkville. “I’ve always been interested in law enforcement and it’s really the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do. I have no family background or history in that field, but it’s a responsibility that I feel comfortable with and know I can be good at.”
Winship, a captain on the 2013 Mississippi State team, has never shied away from taking a leadership role and sees it as a responsibility to do everything she can to make her team successful.
“I love taking on responsibility,” Winship said. “I’m very assertive and I like to make sure things get done, but I’m very team oriented. The team is my first priority.”
Even though Winship thrives as a team leader, she hasn’t always had the opportunity to be in that role. The Ridgeland, Miss., native began her collegiate career at UAB, redshirting her first year and seeing time in 13 contests her second season.
After transferring to Mississippi State, Winship played in just six games with three starts a year ago, claiming 28 saves. It was a learning and growing process for Winship, who spent much of her time out of the spotlight.
“Starting out as a freshman, I was very naïve,” she said. “I didn’t understand how fast or competitive the college game was. You go from being the best player in your city to being just another player. Between now and then, I’ve been humbled a lot. I had to play behind goalkeepers. It is a learning process and definitely a growing process.”
Still, even though Winship wasn’t often in the starting lineup, she never let that affect her attitude, work-ethic or commitment to her team.
“You have to know your role,” Winship said. “If you’re constantly looking at yourself ahead of the team, then you don’t need to be a leader anyway. Two or three people on every team have the captain’s armband, but that doesn’t mean there are only two or three captains. Just because you don’t wear the armband doesn’t define you.”
It didn’t take Gordon long to realize that Winship would be a leader on his team after he was named the head coach of the Mississippi State program on Nov. 27, 2012.
“I challenged her and the other seniors on our team that you really only get one opportunity to change the culture and their impact on the program could be felt for years,” Gordon said. “You can all buy in or not all buy in. With her, she was starving for it. With her as a sounding board for what was going on in the program, she was terrific.
“People who are in law enforcement, one of their best qualities is that they are very, very observant to what is going on around them,” Gordon continued. “That makes them who they are. With her being here, she was very black and white with her assessment. She could tell me about things she thought were great with the program or things she thought needed to be changed, and she could say those things without any hidden agenda.”
Winship could relate to Gordon’s transition to the Mississippi State program and sought to be as helpful as possible in helping her new coach and her teammates adjust to the coaching change.
“I transferred to Mississippi State the spring of my sophomore year, so it wasn’t that long ago that I was trying to figure these girls and this program out too,” Winship said. “I saw where he was coming from. Aaron is such an easy person to work with – he is very open and trusts me with a lot of information, so I trust him. We have such an open communication channel that it has not been hard for him to adjust player-wise and it hasn’t been hard for us to adjust either.”
Gordon inherited three-year captain Morganne Grimes when he took over the program and was very comfortable with Grimes helping lead his team. After the leadership he saw displayed by Winship, he thought it would make sense to also add her as a team captain, but he left it up to the team for a vote.
The response wasn’t surprising.
“As we went through two-a-days, it became very apparent to me that CJ was a person that our young team with 10 freshmen really looked up to and really looked to for advice,” Gordon said. “She set the level of expectation with what she was willing to do and her commitment to training. I brought it to the team’s attention that we wanted to name another captain, and it was unanimous for CJ.”
Winship has been very comfortable in her role as both team captain and starting goalkeeper throughout the 2013 season, and that is reflected in her success on the field.
“I am a lot more relaxed in goal and I don’t freak about things,” she said. “I try to play smarter than just running around and diving everywhere. That comes with experience. I’d say that I’m more confident in goal than I’ve ever been in my life.”
Not only is the opportunity to lead her current team an appealing one to Winship, so too is the prospect of helping lay a solid foundation for the future of Mississippi State soccer.
“If something is not built on a solid foundation, then it just going to fall apart,” Winship said. “This senior class is incredible as players and as people. The biggest thing to build a team on is just a good set of people, not just a good set of players. I take pride in being part of the foundation. Mississippi State has a rich tradition, academically and athletically, and just to say I was able to be a part of helping build a winning program a few years down the road would be huge for me.”
Having redshirted her freshman campaign at UAB, Winship has a year of athletic eligibility remaining following the 2013 season, but she plans to forego her final season to begin her career.
“I had leg surgery last year for compartment syndrome – I had to get all eight compartments in my leg released,” Winship said. “That means I’m no longer 18 years old, and that I’m getting old. I want to be able to give the field of law enforcement my best, just like I gave soccer my best. I don’t want to walk away from the sport thinking I could have given more. The other goalkeepers I work with are so ready to step into that role that I have no issue leaving the team behind. They are going to be fantastic.”
Gordon agrees, knowing Winship will be comfortable in her decision, and fully understanding the impact she will have left behind for future generations of Mississippi State soccer players.
“She is so dedicated and focused that when she makes her mind up, she will be able to look back without any regrets,” he said. “Her statistics, to be fair, don’t really show the true quality and impact she has had on this team.”
Winship is expected to graduate in December with a degree in criminology, upon which time she will look to enter the career she has long anticipated.
“When I graduate, hopefully I will already have a job,” she said. “I am applying right now. They’ll send me to police academy where there is a physical fitness component, an academic component, gunfire scenarios and different things like that. Any situation you could see in your job is going to be brought up in the academy. I then hope to go work in a local agency and try to make detective of a specialized unit, or I could go to a federal job with the end goal being the FBI.”
Gordon knows that it’s a field in which Winship will have great success because of the attributes he has seen her display in their short time together.
“It really says who she is and what she stands for,” Gordon said. “She is definitely someone who is an accountable person in her everyday life. She is the first person to guide our team with a level of moral compass on walking the right path for a student-athlete and understanding what that obligation means.
“If I didn’t already know, I would say she is someone who is going into law enforcement,” he continued. “She is just someone who feels responsibility not only to herself but to those around her. She is a very selfless individual and really cares about others.”
With the Bulldogs just one game in to the 2013 Southeastern Conference soccer slate, Winship looks to help take her team to new heights before beginning a career that will focus completely on others. It’s a position in which she will be very comfortable and confident.
“CJ is a kid who was not looked upon as a main cog in this program’s wheel, but really seized the opportunity when it was presented,” Gordon said. “She could have looked at the negatives, but she never did; she always looked at the positives. Putting wins and losses aside, she’s helping our program be successful. She could dwell on the past, but she has always been looking forward to the future and relishing her opportunities.”