Shepard changing culture at Putnam

Division 1 state champion Putnam has emerged as a powerhouse, in part because of the way coach William Shepard constantly challenged his players off the court. Brendan Hall/ESPNBoston.com

It was Friday, March 8, and inside the walls of the brand-new Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy, the boys’ basketball team was still practicing. The Beavers were preparing to venture into unfamiliar territory. It had been 19 years since Putnam basketball had played this long into the season. The following night, the Beavers would square off with the defending state champions -- a rival school less than a mile down Roosevelt Avenue -- Springfield Central.

The Golden Eagles were expected to play for the Division 1 Western Mass. title that Saturday night while the Beavers still had its fair share of doubters, yet none of them were in that gymnasium that Friday.

Putnam head coach William Shepard talked to his team each day after practice, though, he tweaked the postgame speech a bit that day. Each member of the team read a line from Marva Collins’ poem “The Creed.”

“It applied to basketball,” Putnam senior forward Kayjuan Bynum said. “But it also applied to life.”

The poem represented the new culture of Putnam basketball, one that Shepard brought into the school four years ago when he decided to leave his head coaching job at Springfield Technical Community College, a position he held for a decade.

“High school is the place I wanted to be at from the start,” Shepard said. “I knew there could be great things to be accomplished. I always knew there was talent here.”

Shepard made the transition to high school ball to tap into the talent at an earlier age and develop these gifted players into discipline young men. When he began at Putnam, he set the expectations high, never lowering them until the goals were met. Four short years later, Putnam will add its first state title banner. More importantly, Shepard is challenging these student-athletes to apply the hard work and success they’ve achieved on the hardwood to the classroom and the community. There is one particular line of Collins’ poem that underscores how Shepard is changing the perception of Putnam basketball and the city of Springfield.

Society will draw a circle that shuts me out, but my superior thoughts will draw me in. I was born to win if I do not spend too much time trying to fail.

The bus ride to UMass-Amherst for the Western Mass. title game was loose, according to the players. They were listening to music, joking, but when they walked into Curry Hicks Cage, they had the opportunity to dethrone Central as the city/sectional power.

A year earlier, Putnam earned the No. 2 seed to Central, only to be bounced in the quarterfinals. The top two seeds remained the same this season with Central receiving the top spot for a tougher schedule. Sharing the same street puts Putnam in the figurative and literal shadow of Central, where the history of on-court success includes three state titles while producing NBA talent in Travis Best. Despite the 20-1 record, Putnam was still doubted for much of the season.

“It really got me mad when they thought we were Division 2,” junior guard Dizel Wright said, referring to one of the criticisms the team heard during the season.

The shifting of the powers started to begin when David Murrell launched a half-court shot, and, as the buzzer sounded to end the third quarter, Murrell’s heave banked in, putting Putnam up nine.

“I let it go and I was like ‘We got this.’” Murrell said. “We got to take over now.”

From there, Putnam cruised to its first sectional final, 61-45, and the school’s first ever boys’ basketball title. Putnam was still the underdog in the state semifinals where the Beavers beat Milford. 52-39.

That trend continued in the state final against Mansfield. And it wasn’t until Ty Nichols hit a pair of free throws in overtime, as the Beavers held on for a 50-48 win, before Shepard’s mission became a reality.

Shepard, who was born and raised in Springfield, understands this wasn’t the only time his players had been counted out.

Failure is just as easy to combat as success is to obtain. … I have the right to fail, but I do not have the right to take other people with me.

Every day after practice, Shepard talked to his team, less about basketball and more about life and how the choices they make.

“I’ve told them, you’ve overcome adversity already,” Shepard said. “Basketball is the easy part.”

Shepard refers to his players dealing with the pressures of a city with many temptations and as a court officer in Springfield for 14 years. He has seen countless teenagers walk in and out of courtrooms for whatever reasons over the years, whether it is drugs, gangs, etc.

“We talk about a lot of life issues,” Shepard said. “It’s just not being a follower. To be honest some of their friends are selling drugs, not doing the right thing. They have a choice.”

“It’s easier for anyone to get caught up in that life,” Bynum added. “We use basketball as a sanctuary. We don’t need a gang family. We are each other’s family.

“No one needs to be out there when you can be in here with us, having fun, practicing, winning state championships.”

Through his time at Putnam, Shepard has become a role model and a father figure to those who needed the influence of a male role model in their life. Shepard is like his players, born and raised in Springfield. He won the Lahovich Award (awarded to the region’s top player) when he was in high school before starring in college at Western Connecticut State.

In his post-practice speeches, Shepard tells his players to not become followers, and challenges his team to be successful outside of the basketball court and in the classroom. Putnam serves as the city’s trade school, although, its six rotation players – Bynum, Murrell, Wright, Nichols, Jonathan Garcia, and Kishawn Monroe – all plan on attending four-year colleges. Within the first two years of his coaching tenure at Putnam, Shepard began to attract the attention of the city’s top players. Those, who had a passion for the game and were willing to be a part of something bigger then themselves.

“I had watched them play Northampton in 2011,” sophomore Jonathan Garcia said. “I remember I came to watch them and saw Putnam pull out a close one.

“I actually had to beg my mom to let me go to school here. She wanted me to go to Central.”

No longer was Central the place where all the talent in Springfield went. Putnam offered a solid education along with a trade in addition to what Shepard had to offer as a basketball coach. That’s exactly what Shepard and Putnam provided kids in 2012-2013.

Time and chance come to us all. I can be either hesitant or courageous. I can swiftly stand up and shout: "This is my time and my place. I will accept the challenge."

Ty Nichols stepped to the free throw line with the score tied, 48-48, in overtime of the state championship. He buried the pair of free throws, but coincidentally, the sophomore standing on the free throw line was the one that wanted to quit the team during his first season with Putnam.

“He wanted to quit,” Shepard said. “I have to give credit to his mother. She brought him into practice that day.”

Nichols, a transfer from Chicopee Comprehensive High School, admits it took some time for him to get used to the brand of basketball Putnam was building.

“Earlier in the year I wasn’t used to playing with these guys a lot,” Nichols said. “I was used to getting the ball, scoring more. I had to get used to passing the ball, so I had to adapt to how they were doing things at Putnam.”

Nichols, who transitioned into the sixth-man role this season for Putnam, will be one of the key players returning to next season’s team along with Murrell, Wright, Garcia and Monroe. After four years and with a new $114 million the perception of Putnam have been altered in the city of Springfield.

“Putnam is the place to be here,” Shepard said.

Thursday afternoon the team was getting their state championship rings sized. Bynum, a senior is done playing high school basketball as he is on his way to Southern Connecticut State to play football. He’s still pulled aside by Shepard as the two have a conversation in the school’s cafeteria. Times have changed at Putnam and with Shepard in the mix, it only serves as a positive for the team and provides a guiding influence to the city’s youth.