Gering’s Trey Winkler will get to play in front of his family and friends when his Rainy River Community College basketball team comes to Scottsbluff to play in the Western Nebraska Community College Thanksgiving Classic this weekend.

Winkler, who spent the last two years at Black Hills State, is looking for the return home to play in front of his family.

“I’m super excited to be home and show my teammates around the town,” Winkler said. “It’s going to be really fun getting to play in front of my family and friends again.”

Winkler and the Rainy River team will play three games while they are here. Wednesday, Nov. 27, Rainy River will face Eastern Wyoming College at Cougar Palace. Then, the Thanksgiving Classic begins on Friday, Nov. 29, when WNCC faces Rainy River at 7:30 p.m. Rainey River will wrap up the classic on Saturday, Nov. 30, at noon.

This is the second year that Rainy River, which is located in northern Minnesota, has come to WNCC for the Thanksgiving Classic. The team travels this far to play in the Cougar Classic because of a family connection — Rainy River head coach Bill Engel is the father of WNCC assistant coach Billy Engel.

“It’s very cool getting to see my coach, coach against his son,” he said. “It’ll always be a memory and a bond they can talk about forever.”

It will undoubtedly be a special weekend not only for the Engels, but also for Winkler and his family. Rainy River has another connection to the area. TJ O’Connor, a sophomore at Rainy River, played for the Cougars last year.

Rainy River is looking to get better as a team this week. Rainey River is 2-2 on the season with a 111-110 win over Bismarck State College and a 90-68 win over Gogebic Community College.

Winkler said what they need to do to get wins this week is play together.

“Our biggest thing we got to do playing these three good teams is play together on both ends and grab a lot of rebounds,” he said. “We don’t have that much size.”

What Rainy River has, though, is good shooting. O’Connor and Winkler are two of the top scorers on the team. The Voyageurs are led by Shaquoy Ferrol at 26.3 points a game followed by O’Connor at 17 points and Winkler at 13.5.

Winkler said it feels great to be back on the court after two years of seeing little playing time.

“I haven’t really got a lot of live-game experience the last two years, so to be able to start and have a good role is a blessing and something I’ve worked hard for,” he said. “I’m still getting use to things and getting a feel for the game speed, but it feels great to be on the court again. It’s also cool playing alongside TJ because he is a good shooter so that opens things up for the both of us.”

One of the biggest reasons for Winkler’s success this season is his free-throw shooting. He is shooting 92.9% (13 of 14) from the charity stripe. He has buried five treys. He has dished off 12 assists and leads the team in steals with 10.

Winkler said junior college is definitely different from NCAA Division II competition.

“Junior college is a lot different than D2,” he said. “The pace is very fast and some teams take a lot of fast shots, so you just got to be careful getting into a run and gun game instead of running some offense. There’s a lot of dudes that want to make it to the next level so no one takes it easy.”

Winkler said the goal of the Rainy River team is to make it into postseason play.

“Our goal for Rainy River men’s basketball is to get a conference title and win the state title and make it to nationals,” he said. “We’ve been working hard and the more games we play the more we will figure our team out, so we will be just fine because we have solid pieces to make it there.”

The big adjustment for Winkler is the weather with the campus being close to the Canadian border.

“We are a few hours away from Minneapolis, but we did have a tournament there a couple weeks ago and got to go to Mall of America, so that was pretty cool,” he said. “We are up on the border of Canada, and it’s pretty cold up here. The people in town said it gets to -40.”

When they competed in the tournament in Minneapolis, Winkler’s parents Laurie and Rick made the trip to watch him. He said it was nice to see them in the stands.

“It was a blessing having my parents able to come out and watch my first two games,” he said.

And, they will be in the stands this weekend along with his siblings. Trey is the fourth of five siblings. His two older sisters are Paije and Breanna and his older brother is Taylor. His younger sister is Sydnee, who plays for Gering.

“It’s a blessing to be able to play the game, but an even bigger blessing to play in front of my family,” he said.

Speaking of Gering, Winkler said he definitely will need to make a stop into Gering High School to see the new gym. He said he is jealous of the high school students that get to play in the new gym.

“I’m definitely going to see the new gym and shoot a few shots in there,” he said. “I’m jealous because it looks good and would be so fun to play in. Those kids are blessed to have that.”

While Winkler is back home, there are a few places he wants to take the team. The monument is one, but Runza and Scotty’s is definitely on the list of eating places.

“I’m going to have to take them up the monument and show them around the town,” he said. “I need to take them to some of the good restaurants we have. It’ll be a good time for sure. Definitely Runza is a must and also Scotty’s, for sure. I’m probably going to show them TDO too because I know I’ve missed that place.”

As for his plans after Rainy River, he wants to continue his playing career somewhere.

“My plans after Rainy River are to attend a four-year college and play basketball and get a degree in math education,” he said. “I am hoping to one day teach math and coach.”

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