Jessica Shepherd has led a stout Chattanooga defense into the playoffs [Jim Myers, Chattanooga Red Wolves SC]
Shepherd in her youth at Manchester City.
The Chattanooga Red Wolves have no problem scoring goals, leading the Southeast Conference with 28 goals on the season.
Yet even more impressive is the way in which the Red Wolves come into every game with a strong, compact, and organized defense. In 11 games, the Red Wolves have conceded a remarkably impressive 9 goals, including 2 in their elimination victory over the Nashville Rhythm.
It is fair to say that the defensive unit as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but it is also fair to say that the back line is led by Jessica Shepherd.
Shepherd grew up in Manchester, England playing soccer from a young age. After spending 10 seasons with Manchester City’s Women’s Academy, Shepherd spent one year playing for Preston North End, a prestigious club in the area. Looking to take her soccer career to the next level while also receiving an education, Shepherd moved to the United States in 2016 to attend Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.
After playing center back for the vast majority of her youth career, Mississippi Gulf Coast chose to move Shepherd to forward. The move proved effective, for Shepherd led the team with 13 goals while adding nine assists. After two seasons with Mississippi Gulf Coast, Shepherd transferred to Southern Mississippi University to pursue high-level division one soccer. Shepherd returned to center back and immediately became a defensive force for the team.
As she prepares for her senior season, Shepherd has become a star for the Red Wolves.
“From day one, everyone has wanted to be here, we all want to be the best we can be,” Shepherd said.
Needless to say, the team has been incredibly successful. Most impressive has been the play of the back line. Many players have missed games due to collegiate commitments and other conflicts, and the Red Wolves have started as many as four back line combinations. The one constant in the defensive line has been Shepherd, who makes an impact with her technical prowess, tackling ability and vocal leadership. Most importantly, though, Shepherd and the defense have worked to build a relationship founded on trust and collective belief.
“In the back line we have to trust each other,” Shepherd said. “When there are players in the back that haven’t played there before, the most important thing is supporting one another and maintaining that trust.”
What makes the Red Wolves defense truly unique is the manner in which they propel the team’s offense. The defensive players are not only looking to absorb pressure and keep the opposing team out of scoring position, they are constantly looking for turnovers and counter attack opportunities. Shepherd cited the team’s offensive minded defense, as one of the main factors contributing to the team’s success.
“We have more freedom as a defense, we want to score goals,” Shepherd said. “If we work hard and win the ball back, we can make the offense’s job easy.”
After shutting out Peachtree City MOBA in the conference semifinal, Chattanooga took care of the Nashville Rhythm to win the conference championship. Now the team has earned an opportunity to face off against the undefeated Charlotte Lady Eagles in a matchup of South Division powerhouses. In nine games, the Lady Eagles have scored an astounding 22 goals, meaning that Shepherd and the Chattanooga defense will have their hands full. One thing is clear, despite the team’s championship aspirations, they will not be looking past any opponents.
“We obviously know the goal is to win the championship,” Shepherd said. “But we carry a one-game at a time mentality and have all season.”
That mental fortitude has certainly carried the team into the postseason and could be enough to propel the team to a championship. Undoubtedly, Chattanooga’s English import has paid massive dividends.