By Ken McDowell/Journal Advocate
It may be true there is "no crying in baseball," but it was hard for Bryan Shepherd to fight back tears after coaching his final game in a Northeastern Junior College (NJC) Plainsman baseball uniform.
After taking over a baseball program that was still in its infant stages in 2002, Shepherd logged 16 years of blood, sweat, joy, laughter, success and tears, but that all came to an end on May 11 in the Region IX Tournament at Trinidad State College.
The Plainsmen lost to Lamar Community College 10-0 to close out the season and the final chapter of the Shepherd era at NJC, which saw the senior member of the coaching staff at the college record 476 victories over his 16-year tenure.
After not having baseball for nearly 40 years, the program at NJC was revived in 1998. Tom Cimino was the head coach with Dan Drum as the assistant. Cimino left after three seasons and Drum was the head coach in 2001-02 before Shepherd took over in the Fall of 2002.
In July at the conclusion of the Sterling Xpress baseball season, which he was also instrumental in starting, Shepherd and his daughter Camden will move to Kearney, Neb., to join his wife Neala and son Braxton where both have lived since October, 2017.
"My family is number one in my life," he said. "My wife moved to Kearney last fall to take a new job and Braxton went with her.
"Cameron and I stayed here at least until the end of the school year. I always said I wouldn't walk away from a team at the middle of the season unless it was something I couldn't control."
Shepherd admitted he entertained the thought of staying at NJC until Camden, who is a freshman at Sterling High School (SHS), graduated. Camden is a member of the Lady Tiger softball, basketball, soccer and track and field programs.
"But as the year went on it became more clear that we needed to be together as a family and that's why I decided to resign," he said.
Before arriving at NJC in 2002, Shepherd was previously the assistant coach for Oklahoma City University (OCU), a private Methodist university.
He received his education from the University of Central Oklahoma where he obtained his Masters Degree in Education and his Bachelor's Degree in Physical Education from OCU.
He also received his Associate's Degree while playing baseball at Seward County, Kan., Community College.
Shepherd recalled how he got the coaching job at NJC.
"I was coaching pro baseball in Canton, Ohio and my wife called to tell me there was a job opening at Northeastern Junior College in Colorado," he said. "I put my resume together and sent it in. I'll never forget that I was at Oklahoma City University and I got a letter of denial from NJC.
"It said I wasn't qualified and as I crumpled it up and threw it in the garbage my phone rang and it was Sheila Worley, who was NJC Athletic Director at that time. She told me she would love for me to come to Sterling for an interview so at that point I was pretty confused to what was going on," he laughed.
"She explained that there was some confusion with my resume so we came to Sterling on that Monday for an interview and I accepted the job and was back in Sterling on Sept. 15, 2002."
One of his first memories upon arriving in Sterling was a phone interview with a local radio station that at the time covered NJC athletics.
"My first memory of this job was Ken McDowell and Renaud Notaro calling my phone and welcoming me to NJC and doing my very first interview as head baseball coach," he chuckled. "That's something I'll never forget,"
He stressed that he was welcomed right away on the NJC campus by the late Lowell Roumph, former NJC men's basketball coach and one of six NJC coaches to be inducted in the NJCAA Coach's Hall of Fame.
Roumph passed away in December of 2017.
"I will never forget meeting Coach Roumph right away," Shepherd said. "He was good friends with Dan Hays, who was the athletic director at Oklahoma Christian at that time.
"I told Dan that I had interviewed for the NJC job and Dan told me that one of his best friends, Coach Roumph,was at NJC.
"Within the hour he was on the phone to Coach Roumph telling him that I would be good for the job."
Shepherd knew right away that there was a lot of work to do to get the baseball program heading in the right direction, but he was told he had a short window of time to make the program successful or the program would be dropped.
"When we got into town we went by the field and I knew we had some work to do," Shepherd said. "The program had been re-instated for only four years and I knew it would be a good opportunity to put my philosophy and brand into the program."
Shepherd recalled it only took about "15 minutes" to instill his philosophy and brand.
"Shortly after I got here I found out that we were one of the least favorite programs on campus because of disciplinary issues," he recalled. "The community hadn't really embraced the program because of how some of the players had represented themselves.
"After I met with Luke Wheeler (Shepherd's first assistant coach) at the Ramada Inn we had our first meeting with the team on the east side of the auxiliary gym at NJC and I laid down the law.
"Once I got through my fourth rule two of the players got up and walked out and two more raised their hands and said they had got into trouble the previous Saturday night and I dismissed them.
"From that point on Plainsmen baseball was well on its way."
NJC enjoyed success right away in the Spring of 2003, Shepherd's first season. After dropping a double-header at Shepherd's alma mater, Seward County by scores of 7-1 and 17-16 on Feb. 11, 2003, NJC hosted the Hastings, Neb. junior varsity team on Feb. 16 and swept the twin-bill by scores of 6-0 and 7-3.
Sophomore Jon Wilson of Aurora pitched the shutout in the opener, which was Shepherd's first victory as a coach at NJC.
On March 15 Wilson tossed the first no-hitter in NJC baseball history with a 7-0 victory at Plainsman Park over Otero Junior College.
Wilson was also Shepherd's first player to ink a contract with a professional team by signing with the Boston Red Sox in 2003 in the ninth round.
NJC would go on to post a 37-22 mark in 2003 while making it to the championship game of the Region IX Tournament at Lamar before losing to the host team 7-0. The 37 wins by NJC were the most-ever recorded on the diamond at the time.
Shepherd said being the head coach of the Plainsmen has been very satisfying.
"You are a bigger influence on kids as a coach than you ever realize," he explained. "It's the impact that you are privileged to have on the young man and their families and the people around you.
"I've really learned from that and cherished my time here in that aspect."
As a head coach, getting players ready for the next level after leaving NJC is another important job as a head coach that often goes publically unnoticed.
During his 16 years at NJC, 10 of Shepherd's former players were signed by Major League Baseball teams and countless others joined four-year colleges.
"Almost all of our graduating sophomores who wanted to go on and play at the next level have had that opportunity," he said. "I would say 90% of them have and some have gone on into their careers so I'm proud of that."
He added that winning games at the college level is an important job as a coach, but also "being able to develop these guys into good young men.
"It's great to know when they go on and get good jobs and have their own families and just live the lives they always wanted that I got to be a small part of that."
Shepherd describes his time at NJC as "fantastic."
"It's a blur and I still don't know where some of the streets are in Sterling," he laughed. "It feels like I just got here and there is so much here and it shows you how quickly time flies.
"My daughter was born at the end of our first Springseason here and she's already a freshman in high school. But I'm blessed to have had the opportunity to be a part of so many people's lives and the friendships I have been able to build that will last a lifetime. It's been an honor."
Though Shepherd is leaving, he still feels there was more to do at his job in Sterling.
"There are always things you feel like you don't finish," he said, "and I think that's why many coaches coach until they can't think straight. My wife always told me I will probably die on a baseball field."
One of those goals that did elude Shepherd during his tenure was taking the Plainsmen to the NJCAA World Series in Grand Junction. The Plainsmen came close in 2013 when NJC won the Region IX Tournament and hosted the Western District Tournament for the only time in the program's history.
NJC went 0-2 in the tournament, denying the Plainsmen a trip to the NJCAA World Series.
Shepherd guided NJC to its first Region Tourney title in 2009 before falling in the Western District Tournament in Nevada.
"Our goal every year was to get to the World Series, butwe didn't get there," Shepherd said. "I always wanted to be a Hall of Fame coach and have my name up there with all of the other great NJC coaches, but sometimes that's not always in the cards.
"But there is a different plan for me and I'm excited to be able to spend more time with my family."
NJC put together back-to-back 40-win seasons with a 44-16 mark in 2012 and a 40-21 slate in 2013. The 44 wins in 2012 were the most ever recorded by an NJC baseball team.
Shepherd can be proud of the improvement he made to baseball diamond of the North Campus. When he first arrived in Sterling Plainsmen Park, which is his "Field of Dreams," it was just a shell of what it is today: A press box has been added along with bleachers, lights, a scoreboard,new fences and many other amenities.
In addition a new clubhouse is currently being built, however Shepherd probably won't be in Sterling long enough to see it completed.
"We are in the process of building that beautiful new clubhouse with office spaces and other things and I will probably not be able to sit behind that desk," he said. "But there is a lot of pride of all of the progress that has been made out there with the help of a lot of people.
"The facility is much better shape now than when it was when I got here thanks to a lot of people and the support of this community."
Shepherd was never 100% certain this would be his final season in an NJC uniform until the conclusion of the May 11 game at Trinidad in the Region IX Tournament.
He looked at the lighted field from a distance with a million emotions running though his mind.
"I was the last one to walk off of the field and a little bit before that I knew I needed to go be with my family," Shepherd said. "I knew it was the right thing to do. All of the questions I had about leaving and the emotions cleared up and I knew it was time.
"I also knew this was the right team to go out with because this is an outstanding group of young men on and off the field. I can't tell you the support the kids gave me when I broke the news to them."
Shepherd admitted that coaching is not in the cards for him in the immediate future.
"I'm going to go annoy my kids until they tell me to go get a job and leave them alone," he laughed. "But I want to be done coaching for awhile.
"I don't regret all of the years I've coached and I wouldn't change a thing but you do miss a lot of your kid's games, concerts and moments in your family's lives that you want to be there for. And now I have that opportunity toenjoy those moments.
"If another door opens to get back into coaching down the road then I will consider it. But I'm just going to relax a little bit and this Fall I will go hunting."
Filling Shepherd's shoes will be a big task that NJC Athletic Director Marci Henry has to face. She said she is in the process of opening the head coaching position for a nation wide search.
"Hopefully we will be able to find someone with good qualifications to continue the program to the quality Bryan has made it into," she said.
"It will take some time but we want to get the position filled this Summer by the time the Fall season starts."
Henry stressed how valuable Shepherd has been to the baseball program, the college and community.
"Bryan has been an integral part of the athletic department for 16 years, and you just can't replace that," she said. "He's built a program with a reputation of winning, volunteerism and discipline.
"He has taught his players far more than baseball and helped them grow into strong young men who succeed in life. Bryan also took a lead in departmental fundraising and worked very hard to make several improvements to Plainsman Park, including the latest project, the clubhouse that is very close to completion.
"Bryan has put his heart and soul into this program and he will be missed."
Shepherd hopes he has left the NJC baseball program in a better state than when he took it over in 2002.
"Our motto here has always been 'Once a Plainsman always a Plainsman' and I will bleed black and gold for the rest of my life," he said.
"I'm proud of where we are, I'm proud of what the players who have come here and what the community has allowed us to accomplish to get to the point where we are at now.
"The win and loss record is not as good as I would have liked it but that's just part of coaching. But if you look at the win-loss records of the fine men who have come through this program it speaks highly of where we are. I think that bar has been set for whoever comes in and takes over the title as head coach of the Northeastern Junior College Plainsmen."
Shepherd leaves as the senior member of the NJC coaching staff and will pass that torch to Eddie Trenkle, who has been the head men's basketball coach since the 2006-07 season.
He takes great pride in having the opportunity to being a part of the rich history of athletics at NJC. He knows he has been blessed to have been a part of the tradition that includes NJCAA Hall of Fame coaches Bill Lanham, Roy Edwards, Ed Brandt, Roumph, Worley and Henry.
"I couldn't be more proud to be a part of Northeastern and to grace the same athletic department as Hall of Fame coaches who have coached here," Shepherd said. "To be a part of this for 16 years has been an honor.
"We have a great athletic family and now it's time for Eddie Trenkle to be grandpa."
Shepherd added he couldn't thank the community enough for embracing the program during his tenure.
"The people in our community have opened their arms to our program," he said, "and have welcomed our young men into the community and be a part of it.
"I can't tell you in the last few days how many young men have said that their two years in Sterling were the best two years of their lives and they miss it here. They realized they had a great thing at NJC and being a part of the Northeastern Colorado community.
"This community has been phenomenal in welcoming our student-athletes as a part of our Northeastern Colorado family and making me a part of the family."