Jessica Shields is a three-team captain and sits at the top of her class academically. She averages 12 points and nine rebounds a game for the Reds.
NEWARK — Newark high school girls basketball coach Justin Fladd stood tall in his classroom, surrounded by the active “museum” of clippings on his walls. The lessons this week are about Mahatma Gandhi, whose photo is on two of the four walls. Fladd wants his students to think about the effect one determined person can have on the lives of others.
As he settles into a seat, Fladd wants to talk about one of his students, one of his players who is a singularly determined young woman.
“Some kids just let life happen,” he says. “She’s the kind of kid that grabs life by the horns.”
Jessica Shields is a senior forward for Newark. On the height-challenged Reds, she’s the biggest kid Fladd can put on the floor: she’s 5-9.
But she plays much bigger — on the basketball court, on the cross-country trails and lacrosse fields … and in life.
Shields is an honor student who will graduate first or second in her class next June. She is the captain of the basketball, lacrosse and cross-country teams. She is in the BOCES New Visions program, spending half a day at Newark and the other half at Newark-Wayne Hospital, getting grounded in her craft — she wants to be a pediatrician.
“There’s one thing that puts her above her peers,” the coach said. “It’s her attitude. She’s a go-getter. She wants to be the best. It’s ingrained in her. It will help her achieve what she wants to achieve. She wants to go out there and experience it: she’s an impressive kid.”
On the basketball court, you don’t have to look for her number to know which player is Jessica. Find the biggest kid on the other team, and see which Newark kid is in her face: that’s Jessica.
When the Reds have the ball, Shields can shoot from the perimeter, but why do something with finesse when you can accomplish the same thing and lead by strength of will? That kid with her tongue stuck in her cheek, head tucked into her shoulder like any good NFL fullback making a plunge for the end zone — that’s Jessica, moving toward the basket as an irresistible force reckoning against the trees underneath waiting for her.
“Ever since I was little, I’ve played basketball,” she said. “My dad and I would watch Syracuse games together and he took me to games. Gerry McNamara was my favorite player.”
In fourth grade, former Reds head coach Diane Kirnie sent Jessica home with a permission slip to play basketball at the Alex Eligh Community Center. “My dad bought me a basketball hoop for my birthday. My dad and our friend’s dad would coach us and Jay Lauer would coach us on travel basketball with Tim Tanea and Mr. Kirnie. My dad spent a lot of time with me shooting foul shots. I like shooting foul shots.” She makes 79 percent of her free throws.
As a ninth grader, she was pulled up to the varsity for Sectional play and stayed there. This year she’s averaging close to a double-double each game with 12 points and nine rebounds every night out.
What she might be doing next season is also very much on her mind.
“I would like to play in college,” she said. “I’ve applied to some highly competitive physician’s assistant programs at RIT, the University of Rochester and RPI. I’ve been in contact with the coaches at all three. I’ve also looked at William Smith.
“Academics come first for me,” Shields added. She knows she’s walking into a challenging college educational experience and basketball, even at the Division III level, is a full-time commitment.
Newark basketball has an uphill struggle this season, but Shields has faith. “I think coach Fladd is a great coach,” she said. “We have the potential to go far. Our assistant is Katrina Davenport, and she played basketball in college. The two of them together offer us a lot.”
“I like the team aspect: you have teammates you go to school with, connections with your peers. I had a different relationship with cross-country. We run together every day and talk while we run — it was like family. In basketball, my teammates are my friends. In cross-country, I see those girls as sisters and family. We created that bond.”
That isn’t to say playing basketball isn’t a bonding experience. After Friday night games, the team has a late dinner at Parker’s Grille in Newark, with the team at one set of tables and parents sharing the evening at their tables. “It’s a great way for us to connect with one another, but it’s great for the parents, too.”
Shields is the senior class president, the National Honor Society president, plays clarinet in the school band and jazz band, has won science, scholastic and sports awards, and has been a leader everywhere. And she is quick to give credit.
“I’ve gotten a lot of positive encouragement from my teachers,” she said. “Many are my role models. They encourage me to take the extra step to be the best I can, they keep up on all that I’m doing. They have encouraged me to chase all of my goals. I think we have a lot of opportunities here in Newark, and I give a lot of thanks to the staff — they do a lot for us.”
Fladd looks at his player from a coach’s view.
“She is an impressive kid,” he said. “Sports, academics, also in every club known to man — to balance all that is impressive. In basketball, if I ask her to go out and do something, she will. At 5-9 she’s our tallest player and always has to guard people bigger than she is. And she does. She is so physical.
“On offense, she’s not going to sit outside and be a shooter, although she could: she likes to be on the inside where the action is. This is a young lady who lives in the present but has goals for the future. She has the mindset to get something done. She knows she’s important to the team and her team needs her.”
“As a student-athlete,” Shields said, “I try to get people involved, to have a good relationship with my peers and be a role model: that’s what I aspire to be.”
Mahatma Gandhi couldn’t have said it better.