BUFORD — AFTER THE FIRST DAY of soccer tryouts, freshman Mara Sheppard walked away with confidence in her performance. The next two days, however, didn’t yield the same result.

Sheppard got in her head. She felt pressure. She didn’t know if she belonged.

“The coaches don’t think I am varsity worthy,” Sheppard thought to herself. “The players aren’t going to want me on the team.”

Suddenly, Sheppard released the immense pressure that paraded through her brain. She had been playing for Buford soccer programs since the sixth grade, and had a deep desire to play at the highest level of high school soccer after coming to a slew of varsity games as a younger child and saying “I want to be that player.”

It became out of her control, nonetheless. Sheppard trusted in her faith and her coaching staff, knowing she would be OK with playing junior varsity to start her playing career.

Turns out, Sheppard got the nod. She impressed coaches and teammates from the first time she stepped onto the field. Sheppard is piloting Buford’s strong back line defense throughout the GHSA 7A state playoffs, in which it has yet to concede a goal, and the Wolves find themselves a game away from a state championship appearance.

Buford’s semifinal game is set for Thursday at 7 p.m. in a 2023 rematch against Walton.

The freshman is lauded for her determination, maturity and versatility, which is showing itself at a rare level for Buford.

“To watch her shine is impressive,” senior midfielder Abby Kilman said. “She always rises to the occasion.”

Sheppard joined the high school program with most of her Tophat Soccer Club experience coming at the center midfield position. She’s comfortable playing there, too, but Kilman mans the spot for Buford as a senior captain committed to Georgia State.

Sheppard said that no matter how she worked to play the position, Kilman would “work a little bit harder.” Sheppard became a plug-and-play option in the midfield, but her first test came at outside back, the final defense for senior goalkeeper Alina Pope.

Buford played Denmark in a Jan. 31 preseason exhibition. Sheppard had the assignment of Maddie Stoddard, an Auburn commit. Sheppard never played the position before, but it didn’t matter. She shut the SEC-bound player down.

“She rose to the occasion,” Buford assistant coach Kara Tavani said. “Mara was confident and composed. I saw something special.”

In the second-round win over Milton, Sheppard won the team’s acclaimed GRIT award for her defensive effort in a game where the Eagles had a significant chunk of possession in the attacking third. Tavani said one of the first things Buford’s staff noticed was Sheppard’s ability to defend opposing players one-on-one.

Sheppard did so in Buford’s 1-0 victory April 23 after shifting back to outside back full-time for the playoffs after seeing time at two other spots. Pope applauded her teammate for “shutting down” the opponent.

Senior Kaitlyn White said Sheppard is the “fastest player on the team,” which helps in playing the position, too.

“We found a place where she can thrive,” Tavani said.

Fifth-year head coach Megan Hill has had a handful of talented freshmen throughout her tenure, but Sheppard possesses a higher level of maturity than most of them. Sheppard fits in nicely with a group of eight seniors, and Hill highlighted the freshman’s receptiveness of coaching. Hill believes Sheppard will “go far” because of it.

“I remember having those shoes to fill,” Kilman said. “You don’t want to let the other people in front of you down.”

Much of Kilman’s performance comes to a mentality similar to what she showed during preseason tryouts. Each day when the freshman shows up to the field, she knows it’s necessary to prove it and not take anything for granted.

Her priority is the team’s success, but Sheppard fuels herself to show that she can produce regardless of how long she has played high school soccer.

“Even if it means not being able to walk tomorrow because I played so hard, I had to get out there and do my job,” Sheppard said. “There’s always time to rebound. It’s about giving my all every single game.”

While Sheppard had such a desire to play varsity as a freshman, she knew it wasn’t normal. Nor did she expect to become a starter and receive heavy playing time.


“Here I am,” she said.

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