DRACUT -- For Dracut High School senior Karina Shepard, the turning point came toward the end of her sophomore year.
That's when Dracut track coach Erik Taber got the inkling that one of the greatest athletes ever to attend DHS was on the cusp of putting together a truly special athletic career.
It was two years ago during that sophomore campaign that Shepard, the reigning Gatorade Athlete of the Year for girls track in Massachusetts, saw her race times drastically improve. Her time in the 1,000 went from 3:39 as a freshman to 3:12. It was symbolic of the meticulous hard work and focus that characterizes Shepard in everything she does.
Now, Shepard is one of the top high school runners in the nation.
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Based on her outstanding athletic and academic accomplishments, Shepard has been selected as The Sun's Female Athlete of the Year.
"Karina is far and away one of the best track athletes to ever come out of Dracut, right there with Kayla Springford (Arizona State)," said Taber. "Sophomore year is when she really got the confidence in herself and she was seeing results quickly. It was incredible. She has such big ambitions, I've never seen anybody more dedicated while believing she can do anything. She is also very modest. A lot of the girls on the team look up to her and admire her."
Shepard runs cross country in the fall, and indoor and outdoor track. She intends on doing the same at Stanford.
She holds 11 schools records and still has a winter and spring left to add to her résumé. Academically, she is ranked ninth in her class. She has also participated in the Rotary Youth Leadership Awards Conference in Worcester.
"I have some big goals," she said. "It doesn't really matter to me if I have the fastest times right now. It's a nice feeling, but it gets me more motivated to run even faster and maintain that position.
"I really wasn't very good until the end of my sophomore year. Then I started to put more and more effort into it."
The drive to be great is something Shepard's parents, Ted and Patricia, have come to expect from their daughter. That's always been her way.
"She wants to excel at whatever she does," said Ted. "She really bears down when she sets her mind to something. She has always been very organized with her school work, and it's the same thing with her athletics.
"My wife and I talk about what she has accomplished all the time. It brings out some strong emotions. You can't believe you have a kid that has taken all of this as far as she has."
Shepard also has the pleasure of having her sister Kaylee as a teammate. They run different events, however they are both part of Dracut's 4x800 meter relay team, which placed 12th at last spring's New Balance Outdoor Nationals.
Among Shepard's dreams is to someday be an Olympian. She'll be in a great atmosphere to help fulfill that dream -- 39 Stanford athletes competed in the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
"If you look at some of the athletes around the country, the athletes who have gone to high profile schools and the Olympics were at similar times to Karina at this point in their careers," said Taber. "She hasn't even reached her potential, she is still working on form and pacing and things like that."
Starting next fall, Shepard will be across the country and far away from her family. But it's all part of getting to where she wants to be.
"It was a tough decision, but it was one that I knew I wanted to make," said Shepard. "It's a great opportunity."
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