Ame Robertson played softball under former New Hope High School coach Cary Shepherd for six years.
She remembers that when she was a freshman, her old coach once called her into a meeting, and Robertson expected the worst.
“I thought I was in trouble,” Robertson, who was a member of the New Hope softball team from 1992 to 1998, said. “(Shepherd) sat me down and said she wanted me to realize I was a leader and I didn’t realize it…that was the whole turning point of my career. It opened my eyes to bigger things than the game.”
Robertson, now an assistant girls basketball coach at New Hope, relates that story with love and admiration for a coach who meant so much to her and hundreds of other players through the years, and continues to be a source of love and strength for a community.
The impression Shepherd made on Robertson and Laura Lee Holman, a former multi-sport athlete at the school who is now the head coach of the girls basketball team, drove them to organize “Paint the Gym Purple” in honor of Shepherd, who is battling Alzheimer’s disease.
The event takes place Tuesday in conjunction with the New Hope girls and boys basketball teams’ games against West Point. The doubleheader begins at 6 p.m. with the girls game, followed by the boys game at 7:30 p.m. In between, a presentation will be made to the Shepherd family to honor a coach who has inspired and influenced so many.
“We started talking about it before Christmas,” Robertson, who now is Ame Robertson Walker, said. “We talked to her family some at first and then weren’t going to do it, but they came back and said it might be a good idea.”
Robertson Walker said she and Holman wanted to find a way to help Shepherd’s family and honor the work their coach did in creating a softball program at New Hope in 1982 and building it into one of the state’s premier programs.
Shepherd’s resume is filled with accomplishments. The Lee High graduate, who received her degrees from the Mississippi University for Women in 1965 and 1974, started the softball programs at New Hope and guided the slow-pitch team to 18 playoff appearances, 19 division titles, 13 North State crowns, three state runner-up finishes and nine state championships. Her fast-pitch squads at the school had 10 playoff appearances, four district crowns, one North State title, and one state runner-up finish.
All told, her softball teams had a record of 861-263 and won nine state championships.
“She started coaching with little girls in the park,” said former assistant coach Kathi Coleman, who watched Shepherd and her husband, Roscoe, build the program. “People in Columbus love their softball, so out of that and seeing how big football and basketball and baseball and other sports were, she had a deep deep desire for the girls who loved softball. She wanted them to have that same kind of special program. I think that motivated her to give that and to give of herself.
“There is no telling how many years she did it without being paid. She did it out of the love for the game and the love for the kids. We have had a lot of great coaches and a lot of success in a lot of sports at New Hope and around Columbus, but everybody knows Cary Shepherd and everybody respects what she has done, and she has had a big part of all of it.”
Shepherd stepped away from coaching in 2006 and was succeeded by current New Hope High softball coach Tabitha Beard.
“She is probably the greatest motivator I have met in my life,” Beard, who played third base on the school’s slow- and fast-pitch teams, said. “We always made the joke she could motivate you to do anything in the world she wanted to.”
Like Robertson Walker, Beard has plenty of memories about Shepherd. One goes to the core of how Shepherd was able to motivate players so well without having to raise her voice. Beard said she was an eighth- or ninth-grader playing in a district championship game when she missed a routine pop up with two outs and two runners on base. The miscue ultimately allowed a run to score and played a role in New Hope losing the game.
Afterward, Beard said she had “big crocodile tears” and expected Shepherd to be upset, but she said she hugged her and reminded her that she had a strong day at the plate. She also recalls Shepherd telling her, “I bet you will never miss one of those again.”
“In those moments, you got a glimpse of her and how much she truly cared about you and how she made you feel,” Beard said. “Not as a coach but as a nurturing mom would be.”
Beard said Shepherd’s style included so many wonderful aspects, including giving returning starters T-shirts with sayings designed only for them, giving opposing teams “Happy Sacks,” or “goodie bags,” with candy and scripture verses in them, and hand-written notes at special times in their lives to show them that she remembered and still cared about them.
“She was an endless pit of creativity,” Beard said. “We thought of her as a mom and didn’t want to disappoint mom.”
That’s part of the reason Robertson Walker and Holman wanted to do something special for their “mom.”
Robertson Walker said fans attending the games Tuesday are encouraged to wear purple — a color associated with support of the fight against Alzheimer’s disease. There will be a slide show and a memory table set up in the cafeteria at the school for people to be a part of. She said former players, fans, or people who have worked with or who know Shepherd are asked to write down their memories and leave them for Shepherd, or to write notes with their fondest memories or with how Shepherd influenced their lives.
In addition to their previous efforts to sell gray T-shirts with purple lettering that reads “Memories Matter” on the front and “Team Shepherd” on the back, Robertson Walker said black and gold bracelets with purple lettering that reads “Team Shepherd” will be on sale for $4. The money raised will go to Shepherd’s family. People are welcome to donate money to help Shepherd’s family in its fight against Alzheimer’s Disease.
Robertson Walker said Shelley McGlophin, Shepherd’s daughter, has helped in organizing their efforts. There are so many memories she has from her time playing with Shepherd, but she is sure she will remember plenty more Tuesday.
“She loved her kids and would do anything for us,” Robertson Walker said. “She would tell you in a heartbeat she didn’t know much about this game, but she would say she knew how to motivate young ladies. I think she knew a lot more about the game than she let on.”
Away from the field, Shepherd earned numerous teaching honors, including math teacher awards, a nomination of MUW Alumni of the year, and student teacher coordinator plus service on textbook, handbook, interview, and Onward to Excellence committees at New Hope.
In 2011, Shepherd was inducted to the MAC Hall of Fame.
While that honor might have been one of the last tangible ones she received for her work as a coach, Robertson Walker knows the love Shepherd had for her students continues to give. On Tuesday, she, Holman, and Lady Trojans and New Hope fans everywhere will give a little of that love back to Shepherd.
“She could take an average kid and make them believe in themselves,” Robertson Walker said. “Believing in yourself makes a big difference. I think I knew at the time I was decent (at softball), but I didn’t realize I had what it takes to be special one day and that I could lead this team to bigger things.
“I don’t know what you would call (what she and the others are doing for Shepherd and her family). She already has been inducted to the Hall of Fame, but we wanted to show more support for her and her family for the things she has done at New Hope and in the state. She is the mother of softball in Mississippi. We wanted to embrace her and let her and her family know we are behind them. We also wanted to increase awareness of the disease because it doesn’t just affect the individual. It affects the family. We wanted to let…the family know we’re behind them.”
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.