Jessica Shepard right at home
It's usually starters against backups for scrimmages at Fremont (Neb.) High, with defensive assignments quickly called out by the players.
Jessica Shepard's name is the last one spoken, and it's usually muttered with a mix of reluctance, resignation and regret.
"[The backups] are never too excited about who is going to take her," said Fremont senior forward Kendall Niehaus, one of the fortunate starters.
The reasons for the misgivings are simple: Shepard, a 6-foot-4 junior, is the reigning Gatorade Player of the Year in Nebraska and the No. 5 prospect in the espnW HoopGurlz Super 60 for 2015. She averaged 24.6 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 2.0 blocks and 1.8 steals last season, leading Southeast (Lincoln) to a Class A state title.
But Shepard transferred to Fremont -- a small town where she lived until seventh grade -- this season after her father, Mark, got an offer to serve as Fremont's superintendent of schools.
The girls at Fremont, which finished 9-15 and out of the playoffs last season, are thrilled to have Shepard back -- except when it comes to the unlucky soul who draws that dreaded defensive assignment at practice.
"I'm not their favorite player to guard," Shepard admitted sheepishly. "They don't like getting scored on."
Don't lose any sleep, girls. Shepard does that to just about everyone.
The Nebraska recruit, after all, doesn't want to make her teammates look bad. But, as she puts it, "I have to get better in practice -- I can't take it easy on them."
When it came to leaving Southeast, Shepard had a similar attitude. She didn't necessarily want to leave, but she knew it was best for her family, and she was going to make the best of the situation.
Beyond that, she viewed her transfer to Fremont as a homecoming.
"When my dad told me we were moving, I was really excited just because I was going to get to play with the girls I grew up with," Shepard said. "But I was also a little upset because I had gone to Southeast for two years, and we had success."
That's an understatement.
In two years, Shepard helped Southeast post a combined record of 49-5, leading the team to two berths in the state final.
Southeast lost 36-35 to Omaha Central in 2012 and then beat Bellevue West 65-57 in the 2013 state final. Shepard had 26 points and 19 rebounds against Bellevue West -- her last game in a Southeast uniform.
Shepard said a lot of people at Southeast were "pretty upset" when they found out she was leaving.
They were even less thrilled Monday, when Fremont beat them 45-41 in the semifinals of the Heartland Athletic Conference Holiday Tournament. Shepard scored 30 points and Fremont (9-1) went on to win the title Tuesday. Against Southeast, Shepard also guarded Reanne May on the perimeter for most of the game. May, coming off a 23-point game, was held to four points.
Alexa Kastanek, a 5-10 guard who starred for Southeast last season and is now averaging 5.3 points per game for Iowa, said Shepard's departure had a "big impact" on her old school.
"Jess was supposed to be the 'next generation' at Southeast," Kastanek said. "Losing her was a blow. But it's not like Jess chose to go. Her father has wanted that job forever.
"Jess is like a family member to me. We want what is best for her, no matter what."
What Southeast lost, Fremont gained, and that is especially true for Tony Weinandt.
The Fremont coach has known the Shepard family for a long time. In fact, his first job was as an assistant coach for Shepard's grandfather, Wes, who is now retired. Weinandt also coached Jessica's sister, Taylor, during her freshman season before the family moved to Lincoln. Taylor, a 6-2 post player, is now a junior for Midland University, an NAIA school. (The girls' brother, Clayton Shepard, is a 6-foot-7 freshman on the Midland men's team.)
As a friend of the family, Weinandt had heard that Mark was up for the superintendent job. Then, one night in April, Weinandt got the call from Mark telling him he got the job and that Jessica would be coming to his school.
"My wife knew right away," Weinandt said of his good news, "because I had a huge smile on my face."
Suddenly, Fremont, a town with a population of roughly 30,000 located 50 miles northeast of Lincoln, was abuzz.
Fremont has never won a state title in girls' basketball. But with the addition of Shepard and another transfer, sophomore point guard Rylie Cascio Jensen from Bellevue East, Fremont entered this preseason ranked third in the state. Fremont's opener, a 64-28 win over Columbus, was suddenly a hot ticket.
"That was one of the most anticipated games for any sport we've had here in quite a while," Weinandt said. "It was a big crowd, pretty close to sold out."
Niehaus said there has been a lot more student involvement at games this season.
"It's been crazy," she said.
Shepard, for one, is excited about the excitement.
"I think there is a buzz in the whole town," said Shepard, who is averaging 33.2 points, 16.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists so far this season. "I think it's because Fremont is a smaller community and also because, in the past, we haven't had a great basketball program. "The people in our community see our potential, and I think they're excited."