Grad assistant Ogunnorin boosts VCU women’s basketball team morale

Jessica Ogunnorin looks to pass the ball during the 2015-16 season. Photo courtesy of VCU Athletics

Joe Dodson, Contributing Writer 

Jessica Ogunnorin’s life has been a story of adapting. Now, as a graduate assistant for the women’s basketball team, Ogunnorin is focused on helping other athletes adapt to life’s many ups and downs as they return from a seven-month gap in games.

According to a statement from head coach Beth O’Boyle, Ogunnorin was invited to join the staff because of her understanding of the team’s culture. O’Boyle said the former forward will add experience and a positive voice on the sideline for the upcoming season. 

“Her enthusiasm is contagious amongst our student-athletes, and she brings a wealth of knowledge, both as a former student-athlete and a professional basketball player,” O’Boyle said. “It’s been an honor to coach her and now to have her as part of our staff.”

Ogunnorin joins a program that has made back-to-back Atlantic 10 championship game appearances in the last two seasons. With a Nov. 27 non-conference opening at Arizona State quickly approaching, Ogunnorin aims to help the women’s team adapt to eight additions on the roster.

As a basketball player, Ogunnorin had to adapt to three different colleges and several professional teams after coming to the U.S. by herself from Greece at 18 years old.

Ogunnorin was encouraged to play basketball as a kid to stay out of trouble. 

She chose UC Riverside because the former coach, John Margaritis, also spoke Greek. Ogunnorin described her experience as two years of mental abuse from the coach, who would use her personal issues as a way to break her down. 

After two years of being threatened, yelled at and told she was not good enough, Ogunnorin said she met with former Stony Brook head coach and current VCU coach, O’Boyle. 

Ogunnorin said she was attracted to O’Boyle’s honesty, so she transferred to New York and started the next chapter of her basketball career. 

After what happened at UC Riverside, it was hard for Ogunnorin to trust those around her. 

“I didn’t trust coaches. I didn’t trust teammates,” Ogunnorin said. “I was just focused on being the best on the basketball court, in the classroom and at my job. Coach O’Boyle had multiple meetings with me where she told me I had to trust someone or it wouldn’t work out.” 

The first time O’Boyle and Ogunnorin made history together was Ogunnorin’s first year at Stony Brook. The team went to the WNIT for the second time in program history and finished second in the American East conference. 

O’Boyle took the VCU head coaching position after Ogunnorin’s redshirt junior year. Ogunnorin earned a spot on the All-American East defensive and academic team her redshirt senior year. She remained in contact with O’Boyle, and with one year of eligibility remaining, she decided to join VCU as a graduate transfer.

“She checked on me after she left,” Ogunnorin said. “I just really wanted her to walk me out my senior day. That was really why I went.”

The roster was already full when Ogunnorin arrived in 2015. O’Boyle was straightforward and told her not to expect a large-minutes role.

Ogunnorin said the opportunity was all she needed. She quickly impressed her new teammates and coaches with her work ethic.

“That team was just so welcoming,” Ogunnorin said about the 2015-16 squad. “My first memory of them was just that family atmosphere.” 

Whenever Ogunnorin joined a new team, she looked to see what the team was missing and would quickly try to adapt to that role. Although scoring was one of Ogunnorin’s strongest skills, she embraced her role as a defensive rebounder at VCU. 

In her lone season with VCU, Ogunnorin started 27 games and led the team in rebounds. Again, O’Boyle and Ogunnorin made history when VCU beat then-No. 25 Arizona State University for VCU’s first win over a ranked opponent since James Madison in 1988.

“It’s just nice to know every time me and coach O’Boyle come together we make history,” Ogunnorin said. 

After playing several years professionally in Europe, Ogunnorin wanted to pursue her dream of creating a mentorship program for student-athletes. VCU’s Center for Sports Leadership is providing her the opportunity to make contacts and learn from professionals while working on O’Boyle’s staff. 

Along with her many duties as a graduate assistant, Ogunnorin said she provides guidance to players. 

“The more we’re able to show this younger generation that they are seen and they are valuable beyond their skills on the floor, the more they’re able to perform,” Ogunnorin said. “Not just on the court, but in life.”

Redshirt sophomore Sam Robinson said Ogunnorin boosts morale during practice. 

“Maybe I’m feeling down because I missed a shot or made the wrong play,” Robinson said. “She will come talk to me and tell me something positive I’ve done and to keep my head up.”

Ogunnorin has broken barriers off the court. She has a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in public policy, as well as a master’s in computer and information systems security. Now pursuing her third master’s, Ogunnorin hopes to be an example for the players. 

“You can be a woman and be in the IT field,” Ogunnorin said. “Don’t allow these stereotypes and these barriers that are only mental and superficial stop you from being the best you can be.” 

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