Sitting on an old wooden bench outside of her family’s barn, a basketball in her hands and blue leather cowgirl boots on her feet, Jessica Judge finally seemed at peace.
The question that hung like an ominous cloud during her final year at San Luis Obispo High had been answered, and she was ready to move toward a brighter future.
“I remember toward the end of junior year I was dreading becoming a senior because I knew I was going to have to decide what I was going to do,” she said. “Throughout all of high school I knew that someday this decision would come.”
Judge was a four-year starter and the anchor of the San Luis Obispo High girls basketball team. A three-year captain and two-time All-County first teamer, she led the Tigers on an unprecedented run to the Division 3A semifinals as a junior before carrying an entire new cast to the second round in her final season this past winter.
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But despite all of her successes on the court, the urgings of her coaches and the interest from schools of all divisions, Judge will not be playing basketball come the fall.
Instead, she has chosen to pursue another endeavor she is equally passionate about. A field she is just as — if not more so — talented in: Livestock judging.
“I’ve just always had a love for it,” said Judge, who joined 4-H when she was 9, has made it to FFA nationals three times and co-owns Tri-Star Cattle Company with her two siblings.
“What a lot of people don’t understand is that the actual livestock judging team is like a sports team,” she added. “It’s a huge commitment. We practice five times a week, just like you would a sports team.”
So after her teammates get through their awkward looks, wisecracks and the inevitable “Why not do both?” insistence, Judge just wonders how she was able to make it work at the high school level.
“I was busy all the time — I had no social life,” she said. “If I wasn’t on the court playing, I was out here at the barn or doing other work.”
Nothing less than full effort
Judge had no down time because she was as tenacious with herding heifers as she was in a full-court press.
“Jessica was the most hardworking, dedicated athlete I have coached in my 10 years at (San Luis Obispo),” her varsity coach, Dan Monroe, wrote in an email while on a recent vacation. “Her competitive fire, tenacity and will to win not only contributed to her success as an athlete, but it definitely helped bring a mindset and focus to our practices and games on a daily basis.”
According to Monroe, Judge spent extra time in the gym during holidays and after practice, working to perfect a reliable mid-range jumper to go along with ballhandling skills she possessed since her days as a middle school point guard.
A growth spurt made her one of the Tigers’ tallest in her first year, thrusting her into the varsity starting lineup in a new position — the post.
“I had no muscle,” Judge recalled of her 6-foot frame. “I was literally a huge twig.”
But she banged down low with the likes of 6-3 Stanford-bound Aly Beebe of St. Joseph, averaging nearly five points and six rebounds in 24 games.
After scoring a point more per game as a sophomore, Judge broke out her junior year by posting averages of 11 points and seven rebounds while being named the PAC 7 Defensive Player of the Year.
She led the Tigers in scoring in three of their four playoff games, including 18 in an opening-round win over Cabrillo and 13 in the season-ending loss to eventual champion Chaminade.
With the adrenaline from a deep postseason run coursing through her veins and interest and camp offers coming from Division I programs such as Cal State Northridge and Cal Poly as well as schools in Arizona and Nevada, Judge said she “had it in my mind” that college basketball would be her path.
However, her entire ascension in basketball ran parallel with instant stardom in FFA.
On a livestock judging team that included her older sister, Ashley, Judge won the state contest and placed second at the national championships as a freshman.
Winning a state title in a certain concentration prohibits further FFA competition, so Judge moved on to prepared public speaking in her second year and marketing. The results stayed the same.
She won the state title in public speaking, where contestants researched an agricultural issue before preparing an eight-minute speech, and placed fifth at nationals. Her marketing team placed first in California, so she will return to the FFA national convention in Louisville, Ky, this fall for one more shot at the ultimate prize.
“Jessie is a self-starter and can see what needs to be done and completes the task without hesitation,” said Greg Beard, Judge’s adviser when she was South Coast Regional FFA President, overseeing members from San Jose to Los Angeles. “She is not afraid of hard work and stays until the task at hand is completed and never lets outside influences affect her punctuality and attention to detail.”
A trying season ends, but journey does not
Back in a basketball jersey for her senior year, Judge enjoyed her best statistical season but also the most emotionally taxing.
The impending decision date loomed, her new teammates lacked experience and she was constantly the focal point of her opponents’ defense.
Still, Judge managed to put up a career-best 18.4 points and 6.9 rebounds a game while splitting league MVP honors with Pioneer Valley’s Shnyia Tell.
San Luis Obispo finished 13-11 overall and under .500 in the PAC 7. The Tigers scored 32.3 points per game with no one other than Judge averaging more than 5.4 points.
“She had a lot of pressure on her this past season and knew that we expected a lot out of her,” Monroe said. “On some nights, she had to carry us.”
It took its toll.
“Having (college) aspirations and then going through that season was discouraging,” Judge said. “There were some highlights and things that will be great memories of mine forever, but there were things that, honestly, made me hate playing.
“After the season, I was so tired that I didn’t want to play anymore. I didn’t play for like a month because I was so burned out and so done with it. That kind of influenced my decision.”
Judge ultimately made her choice in May, accepting a full-ride scholarship to Butler Community College in El Dorado, Kan., where she will compete on the livestock judging team and double major in animal sciences and agriculture communications.
Her goal is to transfer to Oklahoma State and its traditionally strong judging team, where her sister currently competes. Judge was accepted to the school, but opted for the scholarship over four years of out-of-state tuition.
Butler has a good basketball team — the Grizzlies were 34-3 last season — and Judge has made contact with the coach in case circumstances change.
But for now, she will pursue the other passion, leaving for the Midwest this weekend.
She made sure to pack her basketball shorts, just in case.
“Sometimes I look back and think; did I really make the right decision?” she said, looking down as she tossed her basketball from hand to hand. “I think I did, but in the back of my mind, I know that nothing’s permanent. I have definitely not left basketball behind.”