Nine games into her senior season, Fremont (Neb.) senior Jessica Shepard was on pace to score more points than any other girl in Nebraska high school basketball history. Two weeks later, the third-ranked player in the espnW HoopGurlz Top 100 for the 2015 class couldn't get her leg to budge when she tried lifting it.
The Nebraska-bound Shepard tore the ACL in her left knee during a game on Dec. 29, bringing a premature end to her superb high school career.
"It's crazy to think how much can change in one play, really," said Shepard, a 6-foot-4 forward known for her physical but quick interior game.
The multiple hours a day that Shepard had devoted to basketball are now spent on physical therapy, and she hopes to be back on the court in time for Nebraska's August trip to Australia.
Shepard, the two-time Gatorade Player of the Year in Nebraska, was coming off a stellar summer. Playing alongside stars such as South Carolina's A'ja Wilson and Notre Dame's Brianna Turner, Shepard won a gold medal with Team USA at the 2014 FIBA Americas U18 Championship. Shepard averaged 12.6 points on 66.7 percent shooting and 3.8 rebounds per game as the United States, coached by Dawn Staley, went 5-0.
Shepard, who signed her national letter of intent to play at Nebraska in November after giving a verbal commitment to the Cornhuskers in the summer of 2011, continued the momentum from her hot summer into the start of her senior season. She was named to the all-tournament team at the prestigious Nike Tournament of Champions in Phoenix after averaging 32 points and 14 rebounds per game against competition that included two top California teams, No. 1 Mater Dei (Santa Ana) and No. 11 Long Beach Poly.
But in her first game back in Nebraska after returning from Phoenix, Shepard heard a pop after a defender banged into her knee while she went up for a layup.
"It was just a fluke thing," Shepard said. "Right when it happened, I got up and walked and I felt like it may have been fine, but in the back of my mind I kind of had a feeling that it wasn't good."
After the initial disappointment of knowing her high school playing days were over, Shepard realized that nothing could change the past, so she shifted her focus to getting better. She had surgery a week after the injury and started rehab two days after the operation.
Within two weeks she was doing mini-squats, but progress didn't come easily. When she first worked on bending her knee, she couldn't get her quad muscles to fire.
"They said my nerves were confused," Shepard said. "I would try to lift it, and it just wouldn't move. It's not a comfortable feeling. You're teaching your leg how to do everything again, how to get it to bend again and use my muscles. I've never had to do something like that."
One of her best friends had torn her ACL two months before Shepard did, which has given Shepard a sneak preview of what to expect during her own recovery.
Though Shepard won't get a chance at the state's career scoring record -- finishing fourth with 2,229 points, 523 points behind Darcy Stracke -- she puts her injury in perspective.
"I just need to focus on the things I can work on right now," Shepard said. "There's people every day who have cancer."
She also hopes that the injury will help make her stronger both mentally and physically in the long run.
"It's a tough situation," said Shepard, who won a state title at Southeast (Lincoln) as a sophomore before her family moved to Fremont. "But if I can overcome this, it should make mental things on the court a lot easier for me, and physically I won't be able to do a lot of running for a while but I'll still be able to lift, and that's one area I should be able to improve on."
Shepard, who comes from a family of coaches and hopes to enter the profession, also has used her situation to get some experience seeing games from the sideline. She offers tips and motivation when she can, though seeing her teammates on the court isn't always easy.
"Every day I kind of think about it, how I wish I could be out there playing and what I could accomplish," Shepard said. "Right away I was upset about it, but since then I've tried to stay positive."