January 28, 2011 7:45:00 AM
Erica Shepherd had plenty of possible outs.
She could have pointed to a knee injury that forced her to miss a chance to play as a sophomore for the New Hope High School girls soccer team.
Shepherd also could have balked when coach Mary Nagy told her she would have to start her junior season with the junior varsity team.
It would have been natural for the former softball player to question if all of the hard work was worth it, especially for a sport she have never played.
"I knew she would come back," Nagy said. "I knew she was an athlete. It is in her family. Her grandmother is coach (Cary) Shepherd (who helped start the state champion New Hope High softball program). She knows what it is like to win, what it is like to be an athlete, and what it is expected of athletes."
Shepherd didn''t take the easy way out.
Instead, she worked hard to learn the game, encouraged her teammates with a confident voice, and provided leadership that helped bring a young team together. Shepherd''s efforts earned the respect of her teammates and secured a place as one of the team''s five captains.
That a first-year player can become a captain and her energy and work ethic can become infectious and help her earn a starting spot is just one of the special stories behind the success of the New Hope girls soccer team this season.
New Hope (13-3) has set a single-season record for victories. Its latest, a 3-2 overtime victory at Oxford, secured it a matchup against defending state champion Ridgeland at 2 p.m. Saturday in the second round of the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A North State playoffs.
Shepherd, whose left knee is the "bad" one, also has battled problems with her right knee. She admitted being uncertain and a little scared about coming back to try to play soccer. But deep down, she said, she knew she would be on the field.
Shepherd also knew she wouldn''t be on the JV team very long. She said she enjoyed her time on that team but was driven to do more and to go harder, which is what she does on defense alongside sweeper Anna Holley and in front of goalkeeper, two of the Lady Trojans'' other captains. Sarah and Reagan Hern also are captains.
"I knew I was capable of being a varsity player, and I wasn''t going to let me knee put me down where I couldn''t be one," Shepherd said. "My parents (Mike and Jennifer) really helped me. My dad told me I would hurt it worse if am hesitant. He said I just had to play like I was never hurt. My grandparents were there, and my big brother (Tyler) has always had my back. My parents and my brothers motivated me not to think about my knee."
Nagy said Shepherd''s athleticism despite the knee injuries had allowed her to earn playing time at right defender. She said she works and communicates well with Holley and Brantley, and always is looking to ask questions so she can learn about the game.
Shepherd hopes she can continue to be an example for the younger players. On this team, she has plenty of teammates who will look to upperclassmen to lead the way. Shepherd said her teammates deserve the credit for making things work so well.
"The girls are so great, and practice is always fun," Shepherd said. "I think that is why I have been able to be such a good leader.
"I never expected to be on the soccer team, much less a captain and a varsity starter. God has really blessed me with everything He has given me. ... I knew I could play soccer. I just knew it would be something I had to work harder at. Soccer has taught me that not everything is always going to come easy to me, and that if I work at it I can get to where I want to go."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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