Much has changed since Jimmy Sheptock arrived in College Park to wrestle for Maryland in 2009, when he was excited to both work and play with little time for studies in between. He decided against wrestling in the ACC tournament to preserve a redshirt that first year, ripped an anterior cruciate ligament, tore cartilage in his ribs, nearly became an all-American while still receiving pain-relief injections in his rear end, ascended to all-American status the following spring and, this season, attained the first No. 1 ranking ever by a Terrapins wrestler.
Off the mat, Sheptock rededicated himself to his schoolwork. He comes from the wrestling-rich Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania, where every Christmas break he returned home and found someone else hadn’t made it. Dropped out of school. Grades weren’t good enough. One more victory for the dumb-jock stereotype.
“I didn’t want to be that kid,” he said. “Didn’t want people to push the name Sheptock aside.”
After a recent practice, Sheptock slipped into moccasins, sweatpants and an ice pack for his left wrist. He rested his free hand on the wooden statue of a fierce, scowling Testudo and looked wistful as the memories came back.
His freshman season in 2009-10 was spent going through the motions, because he wanted to be “a college student and not a student-athlete.” Still, he avoided trouble enough to hang around and excelled during weightlifting and practice sessions. Sheptock went 24-3 in open competition at 165 pounds and, when starter Mike Letts suffered an injury, was offered the chance to compete at the ACC tournament. But at that late point of the season, why burn a redshirt and sacrifice an entire year of eligibility for seven minutes of competition?
The way Sheptock sees it, he needed someone — or something — to guide him into place. Wrestling requires strength, and Sheptock’s bulging biceps reveal he has plenty, but it also requires control. His grades were suffering and he was visiting the coach’s office for disciplinary reasons. “Being a knucklehead,” said Maryland senior Christian Boley, Sheptock’s former roommate, current workout partner and closest friend for the past half-decade. “Showing up late. Stuff I did. Stuff everyone did.”
Then, at the Penn State Open during his second season, he failed to reach his targeted weight, another strike that meant competing at a higher weight class. During one match, a wrestler from Virginia popped Sheptock’s leg from behind and snapped his knee. He tried to stand up and wrestle. The trainers said no.
“That’s how it was, just sitting in the stands the rest of the day, watching them compete while I was helpless,” Sheptock said.
Before the torn ACL, Sheptock was one point from catching teammate Josh Asper, an all-American, in the starting lineup. But he realized that, even if the knee never healed, he still needed to graduate.
“It was the idea of appreciating how precious this gift is,” Maryland Coach Kerry McCoy said. “Rather than, ‘Hey, I hurt I my knee now,’ it was, ‘I want to do this, this and this, and I’ve only got three years left to do it.’ ”
The rib injury he suffered the next year was so brutal, any slight touch caused throbbing pain. But the medicine could only be administered once a day, so Sheptock reached the ACC finals without help. Then he took the injection and won the 174-pound title.
By the NCAA tournament, his ribs hadn’t quite healed, but Sheptock reached the round of 12, one victory from all-American status. Last season, fully healthy, he went 40-6 and became an all-American after finishing sixth at the NCAA championships at 184 pounds, his current weight class. He has not lost a dual match in his Maryland career.
Sheptock first met McCoy when he was a middle-schooler, attending practices every few weeks at Lehigh University, where McCoy was an assistant. He has maintained the same low power stance — “nothing flashy, nothing fancy,” McCoy says — through the years but only recently became the wrestler capable of gunning for national titles.
To Sheptock, the No. 1 ranking doesn’t matter much, because he still doesn’t see himself as the country’s best wrestler. Ed Ruth, the two-time defending national champion at Penn State, recently lost at the Southern Scuffle in Chattanooga, Tenn., while Sheptock was beating Iowa’s Ethen Lofthouse, the second-ranked 184-pounder, at the Midlands Championship near Chicago. In his mind, Ruth is still the best until Sheptock stands atop the tallest podium at the NCAA championships in Oklahoma City in March.
Every year, Sheptock has outlined goals with McCoy, and in the past they were more open-ended. First, Sheptock just wanted to be satisfied with his performance, to give everything he had. Then last season, he wanted to win his final match. But whoever finished seventh, fifth and third technically won his final match, which to McCoy meant Sheptock had given himself a way out.
This year, though, something different happened. McCoy approached one of the most successful wrestlers he ever coached, the one he ranks among the pantheon of Terps legends, and asked, “What’s your goal?”
“National champ,” Sheptock replied, with no hesitation at all.