RIO RANCHO, N.M. — In the past, John Shepard’s foes have been Cleveland High, Cibola, Volcano Vista and other varsity boys soccer teams out to beat his Rams.
This coming school year, though, Shepard has an unseen foe: COVID-19. Only a few days into summer workouts, the workouts were canceled and the “contact sport” was tentatively pushed into the spring.
Shepard — not even sure the game he loves will be played in the spring (see page 12) — says, “This is a battle that we don’t know how to fight and it’s gonna be challenging. … People are flying blind here, with variations in the virus.
“I think public safety has to be No. 1,” he said. “The negative is so horrible compared to the positive; I think we have to err on the side of caution. I’ve got lots of thoughts on that: Nobody knows the right answers, from world leaders to coaches and administrators. This is unprecedented — the doctors don’t even know the right answers.”
As for soccer in the spring, he said, “I’m betting on scientists — that scientists and doctors can come through with a vaccine — so I’ve got my fingers crossed.”
What if the New Mexico Activities Association, which closed the fall’s “contact sports” (soccer and football), hadn’t made that ruling?
“I wouldn’t have been comfortable with any of it, (but) I would have made the best of what we were given, given the science behind it,” he said.
Since he can’t be overseeing summer workouts in anticipation of the season, what’s “Shep” been doing?
“I wish I could travel — that would have been ideal; I’ve been hiking and walking, doing a lot of reading and a lot of goofing off — and taking care of some projects around the house.”
Like most people, he can live without sports, but he prefers not to.
“Somebody said sports is a luxury reserved for a functioning society,” he said, wondering how much of the latter is intact.
Growing up in Los Alamos, where his mother and father met, Shepard said he’s not exactly sure when his love of soccer began.
“I’ve been loving it and playing it since I was a child. My mother says I was kicking stuff when I was 1 year old,” he recalled. “I remember how excited I was when soccer signups were coming up; I was in third grade.”
Shepard also played football and basketball, but because football overlapped with futbol, and he wasn’t very good at basketball, he became a single-sport athlete.
Shepard was a midfielder on the 1986 Class AAAA state champion Los Alamos Hilltoppers, who won all 17 of their games for head coach Vic Dalla Betta. The ‘Toppers wouldn’t win another state title until 2010.
He graduated in 1987 and headed to Rice University, where he played four seasons for the Owls.
“I thought we were pretty darn good; our junior and senior years, we were pretty tough, pretty talented, although not on a national basis,” he said, adding he was majoring in international relations at the time, thinking about a career as an ambassador or lawyer.
Plans changed: “I taught and played in Houston for six years; I got a teaching job right out of college,” he said. “I taught Spanish … it was my minor in college.”
He’d been indoctrinated to Spanish in Los Alamos, where there was a pilot program in that language when he was in elementary school.
He said he’d never thought about being a soccer coach, although he did coach a summer youth camp — “My first job,” he beamed — in Los Alamos.
Aware of teachers being sought in a brand-new district in New Mexico, Shepard applied and was hired.
“I was here since the school opened; I got the teaching job about a year before school started,” he said, quickly catching on as an assistant boys soccer coach.
“Tim Magee (the original RRHS coach, 1997-2001) and I got to meet quickly, and we clicked,” Shepard said. “He deferred to me as a former player, and we ran the program together.”
Magee was 49-41 in his five seasons at the helm, highlighted by a District 5AAAA “Coach of the Year” honor in 1998.
“Tim Magee gets all the credit for starting the program,” said Shepard, never one looking to pad his coaching résumé.
Shep’s teams have won 10 or more games in 17 of his 18 seasons; overall, his teams have gone 235-129-10, which included a run of five consecutive District 1-5A titles (2005-09).
Times have changed, not just in 21st-century life but on the pitch, he said, and so, too, his style.
“Oh, my gosh — (it’s changed) immensely — and experience is the true teacher,” he said. “Stuff I did at the beginning I wouldn’t do again. Times have changed, facilities have changed, technology has changed — back then, there was no such thing as cellphones.”
Cellphones, he said, can be an asset or a detriment: “We can all point to the instant gratification of our electronic advancements. It’s changed how kids think and what they expect,” he said. “As a coach, there have been growing pains for all of us; (but) there’s nothing I can do — I can’t go onto their Instagram posts and change them, can’t delete them, but we warn them there can be repercussions.”
The bottom line for Shepard isn’t cranking out state championship teams, but seeing his student-athletes become responsible young men.
“Be a good person,” he urges them. “It’s so much easier to hit ‘send’ then stand up in front of somebody — it’s all part of the bigger picture of making better young men.
“There are some basic tenets in how a young man should lead his life: Be proud of what you do in the field — that translates to life. … If you’re proud of your actions, you’ll probably be OK,” Shep said. “We talk about respect for officials and opponents. There are things that I believe have been consistent for 100 years, (and that’s) making better young men.”
Sportsmanship is another aspect of turning out quality young men, and fans will often see Rams players helping up an opponent who has hit the turf, and rarely taunting their opponents. And having fun is something else he wants for his players.
Another thing that has seemingly changed is getting players to step up and become leaders on the pitch.
“Developing leaders is very, very difficult — it has become more difficult (than in the past),” he said. “Being a leader is almost shunned; nobody wants to put themselves out there. It’s really hard on the kids, (but) it makes natural leaders stand out more. It’s nice to have real strong leaders, but I have seen teams be successful that just have guys get along — and that’s OK, too.”
He stays in touch with a lot of his former players, foremost among them A.T. Rattanapote, an “original Ram” who was on the team in 1997 and has been with Shep the past five or six seasons as an assistant coach.
“I stay in touch with some; some drift away,” he said. “Some have come back to coach with me, some have become my friends, some have become my neighbors.”
Another aspect of his life as a coach has also changed: parents.
“Add that to things that have changed,” he said. “More parents understand soccer than they used to, and can give their input much easier, but I do not see too much difference, as far as parents go.”
Soccer aside, how does he feel stepping back into the classroom in a few weeks? He teachers five classes of Spanish and one sports fitness class.
“As a teacher, it’s going to be uncomfortable,” he said. “It will be a learning curve for everyone. I’ll try to make the best of it.
Nothing replaces the conversation (of in-person teaching); Spanish is a lot easier than chemistry labs and dance.
“I try to be a positive influence where and how I can.”