CALEDONIA — Growing up, soccer was something Caitlyn Sheppeard always did.
While she enjoyed the sport, softball occupied more of her time. But as she grew older, Sheppeard tired of all the hours spent with travel softball and turned to other pursuits, like cheerleading.
Through the changes, Sheppeard never lost her connection with soccer. In fact, she grew to enjoy the sport more and more the more time she put into it and the more her skills improved.
When you put as much effort into something as Sheppeard does, there is bound to be a reward.
That payoff came Wednesday, as the Caledonia High School senior forward/midfielder signed to play soccer at Northwest Mississippi Community College in Senatobia. Sheppeard said she will receive an academic scholarship that she likely will use to begin her nursing studies.
“It happened really fast,” Sheppeard said. “I didn’t expect him to offer me right on the spot, but he did. After he gave me a personal tour, I just knew I wanted to go there. I fell in love with the school.”
Sheppeard said former Caledonia High girls soccer player Zoe Saraiva, who is a member of the Northwest Mississippi C.C. team, told the coaches at school about Sheppeard. It didn’t take them long to contact Sheppeard and invite her to visit the school. Sheppeard accepted the offer and traveled to the school last Wednesday and was offered a spot on the team.
“(Coach Levin Nunnally) likes to put other people in different positions, but he said he was recruiting me as a forward,” Sheppeard said. “Since I have experience in the midfield, he said he was going to see what else I could do.”
Sheppeard has been playing soccer since she was 4 years old. She also has done high school cheer for three years. She played softball until the ninth grade. As a soccer player, Sheppeard said she played forward when she was younger. She said her love for the game as she pushed really hard, practiced her shots, and worked aggressively to improve her touch.
“I give 120 percent of my effort into it,” Sheppeard said. “If you ask me to do something I will do it the best I can.”
Caledonia High girls soccer coach Jason Forrester has watched Sheppeard learn how to balance her aggressiveness as she has matured. He said “versatile” is an ideal way to describe a player he planned to move from forward to center midfielder prior to his team’s game against New Hope on Tuesday. Caledonia won the game 3-2.
“She can play forward. She can play midfielder. She can move to defender,” Forrester said. “We have had them come through here who have played with great aggression and know what to do, but Caitlyn plays with that calm. She doesn’t press too hard. She can see the things ahead of her, and she has a real good awareness behind her.”
Sheppeard’s signing extends Forrester’s record to 14 straight years with at least one player going to college to play soccer. Forrester said he recognized Sheppeard had the potential to realize that goal when she was a freshman. He said she has learned to temper her aggressiveness and to be a vocal and lead-by-example player.
“She knows how to use her speed,” Forrester said. “She knows when (sprint) and when to hold back and playing those angles correctly and setting somebody up, but at the same time, when she gives that ball up, she is ready to make that run and use her speed to get in behind folks.”
“As a freshman, she was a little bit more too aggressive, if you can be. Since then, she has learned to understand if I am playing that way, everybody else is going to play that way and we take too many risks that cause mistakes. As she has gotten more mature, she has settled down and people follow her lead because they understand that is the way they have to play.”
Forrester believes Sheppeard, who missed half of last season with a broken collarbone, will have success at the next level because she wants to stay late and gets to practice early. He said she makes sure people are in the right spots and has improved her ability to read the field and to make decisions quickly.
Sheppeard’s decision to play soccer in college wasn’t one that came quickly. As she moved in that direction, though, Sheppeard said her motivation to be the best and to win never wavered. She said she is glad she could commit to a college so she can focus on her senior season and help Caledonia have a memorable season.
“I was really into softball, like really into it,” Sheppeard said. “Soccer has always interested me, but I wasn’t crazy about it until now, but I have always loved it.”
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.