After sitting through a frustrating freshman season, senior Carrie Shephard has become one of SIU’s primary weapons

By Gus Bode

Carrie Shephard threw on her volleyball gear and headed up the stairs for volleyball practice, but as she stepped out onto the Davies Gymnasium floor, her teammates noticed something drastically wrong with her attire.

Her clothes were on backwards.

It’s happened on at least five occasions this season by teammate Jen Pulliam’s count – most recently Thursday.

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“She’ll just come up with her shirt on backwards or her shorts on backwards,” Pulliam said. “She doesn’t even notice, and she doesn’t even care. She’s like, ‘Oh, I did it again.'”

Shephard is known for her goofy humor, and whether or not her clothing mishaps are done intentionally is unknown.

What’s evident is that Shephard is a lighthearted, bundle of energy who loves to make her teammates laugh.

“Everything she does is comedy,” Pulliam said. “I have never played with another player like her.”

Shephard has played with three of the best players in SIU history and was along for the ride SIU volleyball took to the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament Championship in 2002 as a sophomore.

Now in her senior season, Shephard is one of SIU’s main weapons, leading the team in blocks and making her presence felt in the middle of the Saluki defense.

But Shephard almost did not make it to this point, and as a freshman, she never imagined she would play an important role for Saluki volleyball.

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This wasn’t how the Overland Park, Kan., native envisioned her freshman season.

Shephard arrived at SIU in 2001 after leading her No. 7-ranked Blue Valley North High School volleyball team to a 43-7 record and a runner-up finish in the Kansas state tournament.

But Shephard was joining a Saluki squad that already had four middle blockers – Jenny Noel, Lindsey Schultz, Amber Britton and Syretha Eckford – all of whom were upperclassmen.

Shephard had gone from setting Blue Valley North block and attack percentage records to not getting a single second of playing time her first season.

“I didn’t deal with it very well at first because I played all the time,” Shephard said. “Everywhere I went I was always the best player.”

Shephard was one of just three freshmen and she had a difficult time relating to her older teammates.

The struggle Shephard encountered in connecting with her teammates bled into her performances in practice, and SIU head coach Sonya Locke worried if she would ever come out of her shell.

“Carrie was just there,” Locke said. “Carrie did what you asked her to do and that was it – and half the time didn’t do what you asked her to.”

Shephard continued to wrestle with the transition from high school standout to a regular on the bench, and watched from the sidelines as the Salukis missed the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament by four matches.

Her first season had come and gone, but Shephard made her biggest strides in the off-season, where she became a student of the game and began to execute the skills taught day-in and day-out by the coaching staff.

“We started to see the player we knew we recruited,” Locke said.

Shephard’s hard work, coupled with the departures of Noel and Eckford, translated into a boost in playing time in 2002.

Shephard appeared in 29 of the Salukis’ 33 matches – getting the starting nod on 23 occasions – and shared playing time with then-freshman Marissa Washington.

As her playing time increased, so to did the Salukis’ wins, as SIU soared above and beyond its critics’ expectations.

The Salukis looked nothing like the eighth place team the MVC Preseason Coaches Poll predicted them to be, rolling to a third-place conference finish with a 12-6 record.

SIU ran all the way to the MVC championship match, the deepest run in school history, where its dream season was cut short with a loss to Northern Iowa.

SIU may not have finished the tournament journey as champion, but it exorcized some demons along the way, none more significant than its quarterfinal victory against Illinois State.

In defeating Illinois State, the Salukis snapped a 24-match losing streak and Locke’s 12-year skid to the Redbirds.

The departures of six seniors – including 2002 MVC All-Tournament team selections Schultz, outside hitter Kristie Kemner and all-time single season assists record holder Britten Follett – stung SIU the following year, as the Salukis won just three conference matches and failed to qualify for the conference tournament.

The Salukis’ overachieving performance in 2002 was sandwiched between two losing seasons, in which SIU won just 18 of its 60 matches.

SIU had reached the Valley’s biggest stage once, and Shephard entered her senior season on a mission for a second chance to bring home a conference title.

In volleyball, a player rotates one position on the court with every point scored, and middle blockers are usually pulled out of the lineup when the rotation pulls them away from the net.

Shephard is the exception to the rule.

The 5-foot-10 senior is the complete package in that she can hit, block, dig and pass effectively.

Shephard ranks third on the team in kills per game (2.55), third in attack percentage (.241), fourth in digs (172) and first in blocks (81).

“What you label her as is an all-around player,” Locke said.

Shephard’s multi-faceted game has produced the first double-doubles of her career this season, and the first triple double by a non-setter since 1992.

Shephard recorded her first double-doubles in back-to-back matches against Wichita State and Evansville. She unleashed the latest to date against Bradley in the form of a then career-high 17 kills and 14 digs.

In her final match against Evansville Oct. 19, Shephard once again burned the Purple Aces and recorded just the 13th triple double in school history.

Shephard’s 18 kill, 14 dig and 10-block onslaught helped the Salukis to a 3-2 victory and a season sweep of Evansville.

It wasn’t until later that night when Shephard read the match recap that she discovered her accomplishment.

“I was reading the article on the website and I was like, ‘Wait a minute, that’s a triple-double,'” Shephard said.

Shephard’s free-spirited personality might prevent her from saying how badly she wants to help lead the Salukis back to the MVC Tournament, but her actions have been loud and clear.

The best evidence of this lies in the fact that she has achieved each of her career milestones against conference opponents. Shephard is averaging 2.65 kills, .237 digs and 1.02 blocks a game in conference action.

“I’d say out of all the people on our team, she wants it the most,” Pulliam said. “She’s done a lot the past few months just to show how much she wants it.”

Coming into the final two weekends of the season, the Salukis (9-17, 6-8) have a one-match lead over Indiana State and Evansville for sixth place in the MVC.

SIU hosts Indiana State and Illinois State in its final home matches this weekend, and the Salukis can make some huge headway in earning an MVC Tournament berth with a win against the Sycamores Friday.

The realization that these final four matches could be the last with Shephard has hit home for Pulliam.

“I learned a lot from how different our personalities are – how to appreciate people’s differences,” Pulliam said.

“She brings a lot of energy to our team, and that’s something we’re really going to miss when she’s gone.

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