COLUMBIA — After playing just nine games with the Stephens College basketball team, freshman Megan Sheffield has transformed from a substitute into the Stars' offensive anchor and leading scorer. Scoring 11.22 points per game, Sheffield has helped Stephens to a 7-2 record in nonconference play: the best starting record in the school has had.
But Sheffield has not always been a part of a winning basketball program. Last season as a senior at Windsor High School, Sheffield and the Greyhounds finished 4-22.
The record didn't deter Stephens coach Dane Pavlovich from recruiting Sheffield. The 6-foot-2-inch forward averaged 19.3 points and 12.6 rebounds per game her senior year to finish with 1,333 career points, and she also had a 3.98 grade point average. All of those numbers impressed Pavlovich.
But Pavlovich wasn't the only coach interested in Sheffield's potential. So many schools recruited Sheffield, including Truman State and Stephens rival William Penn, that she didn't even keep count. Pavlovich wasn't even the only coach at Stephens interested in Sheffield.
Former Stephens' volleyball coach Michelle Gregory was the first to spot Sheffield,at a volleyball tournament. When she discovered Sheffield played basketball as well, she called Pavlovich immediately. The two worked together for months to recruit the multisport athlete.
"We probably didn't know how many other schools she was talking with, or just how much competition there was," Pavlovich said. "But we knew we had to make sure she knew how much Stephens would benefit from having her both as a student and an athlete."
That was exactly what Sheffield liked about Stephens. She was a three-sport athlete with an inherited interest in biology. In high school, Sheffield competed on the basketball, volleyball and track teams for all four years. Both her parents work as veterinarians, and she has always known she wanted to go into the medical field. Sheffield was determined to be both a multisport athlete and a scientist in college, but many schools discouraged her from pursuing her goals because of the demanding schedule.
Stephens, however, had no desire to restrict its athletes to a specific major or a single sport. It was the perfect match. Many of her teammates play multiple sports for Stephens, and Stars assistant coach and former player Pam Dodge graduated from Stephens with a degree in biology.
"It's cool because Pam will look at me and know exactly what I am thinking," Sheffield said. "She lets me know what to expect from each teacher."
It's a hectic life for Sheffield. Balancing athletics and academics has gotten easier since the volleyball season ended, but some nights she still has to study in teammate Andie Young's adjoining dorm room just to ensure she stays awake.
Sheffield's black knee brace serves as a reminder of the sprained ligament she suffered during practice two weeks before the basketball season began. Bruises up and down her arms accessorize her sleeveless Stephens' uniform and serve as testaments to the brutality and aggression that accompanies collegiate sports.
"If you don't think about it, chances are you won't hurt it again," Sheffield said. "If you want to play bad enough, you learn to develop strategies so that injuries don't stop you in the game."
Pavlovich considers Sheffield's fearless playing style as one of her greatest strengths. He sees her confidence growing as she begins to step out from beneath the basket and take 15-foot jump shots, which she used to hesitate to attempt.
It might be practicing five days a week, or it might be her ability to adapt to new situations. But Sheffield seems to draw most of her energy and confidence from the feeling of support that comes from being on a team with a group of girls that have the same level of desire to play as she does.
It seems strange for a college athlete to just be discovering the meaning of a team, but Sheffield comes from a small town of 400 people. Sheffield nods in agreement as Young, another freshman from a small town, describes the feeling.
"In high school, people played because it was the cool thing to do. It was just something to do. It's nice to have the idea of a team now."