When Oakton and Madison met in their season opener last December, all eyes fell on Kelly Koshuta, a 6-foot-2 area standout and Top 50 prospect for the Class of 2015. Koshuta, who made the final cut for the USA U16 National Team over the summer, had missed her entire sophomore season with an ACL injury. Now she looked ready to set the tone for a season of redemption.
Koshuta came away with an excellent performance that night, muscling her way around the paint for a team-high 24 points and 10 boards. But as the game neared its conclusion, the crowd’s attention had shifted away from Madison’s star center and onto a freshman reserve for the other team.
That freshman was Aisha Sheppard, a 5-foot-8 guard who dropped a game-high 27 points to help Oakton cruise past the two-time defending Liberty District champions, 66-53. Sheppard missed her first shot as a high school player, but she didn’t let that discourage her: She finished 10 for 12 from the field, including three treys, and went 4 for 5 from the foul line.
“It was just about listening to my coaches and my teammates,” Sheppard said. “They were telling me to take the right shots and make the right passes. Don’t think too much about it and just play your game.”
Oakton coach Fred Priester’s secret weapon is no longer so secret. Sheppard still comes off the bench, but she continues to lead the Cougars in scoring, averaging 13.3 points per outing. Her consistent production — she’s reached double figures in 13 games this season — has helped a young Oakton squad get to 16-2 heading into Friday’s conference bout against Robinson.
“I think she has as much talent as any player I’ve ever coached,” said Priester, now in his 30th year coaching varsity girls basketball, his 20th at Oakton. “But she’s still growing and learning the game. And as she learns the game and becomes accomplished mentally, psychologically and emotionally, then the sky’s the limit for her. She’s got that kind of ability.”
Priester isn’t the only one impressed by his star freshman. Among Sheppard’s mentors is Oakton’s all-time leading scorer, Jasmine Thomas, who helped the Atlanta Dream reach the WNBA Finals last fall. Thomas occasionally visits the Oakton gym whenever she’s in town to offer support for Priester and his players. She admires Sheppard’s ability to finish with both her dribble drive and her jump shot, but she also recognizes the responsibilities that lay ahead of her.
“In practice I tried to tell her that the more that she scores and the more that she becomes the focal point of the team, the harder things are going to be,” Thomas said. “She’s going to have to find a way to still get her teammates involved as well as score… Good shot selection was also something that I had to learn as I got older, so if I could help her learn that earlier that was something that I wanted to do.”
Though other teams might vault their leading scorer into a fixed starting role, Priester has stuck with his strategy of bringing Sheppard off the bench. He likes senior guard Jazmine Carter’s ability to defend in the post, and he values the spark Sheppard brings when his team’s energy starts lagging.
Priester is also quick to insist that his freshman needs to improve in several areas before she starts seeing maximum minutes. Rebounding and shot selection are points of emphasis, though getting more comfortable in his system remains the primary goal.
“I don’t want to say that I don’t care about winning. I do, but I care more about process,” Priester said. “I’ve got four years with her. I’m not going to say, ‘Ok, she got 27 points, so I’m done.’ I see things that I know she needs to work on, and she has been real good about working on them.”
Sheppard is adjusting to the nuances of Oakton’s system on both ends of the floor, a kind of challenge she doesn’t typically face in the more free-flowing environment presented by the Virginia Diamonds, her AAU team in Ashburn.
“[Priester has] taught me a lot that I didn’t see when I played AAU, which is kind of like a pickup game,” Sheppard said. “He’s kind of like a college coach, so the stuff that you do here you’re going to be doing when you get to college. So he’s preparing me for the next level.”
But Sheppard isn’t alone when it comes to adjusting to the complexities of Oakton’s system, a process that “comes in fits and starts,” as Priester likes to say. The Cougars are a young team still learning to build chemistry and consistency. They’re led by Alex Marquis, a sophomore whose own experiences as a freshman helped her become the team’s rock at the point guard position. And Sheppard isn’t the team’s only freshman this year: Delaney Connolly, the Cougars’ fifth-leading scorer, has used her 5-11 frame to make herself a steady presence on both ends.
Still, Priester says he’s using the seemingly counterintuitive approach of giving his youthful group more freedom this season.
“It’s kind of a two-way street,” he said. “Sometimes if you ask them to do too much, then they’re just paralyzed and they can’t rely on instincts. Finding that happy medium is what we’ve been trying to do all year long.”
After winning their first 11 games, the Cougars dropped two in a one-week span, falling to Mount Vernon and Centreville for the second season in a row. Karlie Cronin, who maintains a double-digit scoring average alongside Sheppard, Marquis and fellow junior Lindsey Abed, insists those mid-season losses could prove beneficial down the line.
“It kind of gave us experience and allowed us to get back on track to what we were doing because we were a little unfocused,” Cronin said. “We’re just trying to play every game better than the last one really.”