By Jim Fenton
His pitching career at Stonehill College had to be put on hold after only three relief appearances as a freshman in 2009.
Kyle Shepard underwent Tommy John surgery to repair the ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow following his first season with the Skyhawks, and he was unable to play in 2010.
When Shepard returned to the Stonehill active roster in 2011, he was a starting outfielder, hitting .283 with 41 hits in 42 games.
It wasn't until this past spring when Shepard finally got back on the mound, moving into the Skyhawks' starting rotation.
In nine appearances, including eight starts, Shepard went 4-2 with a complete game and a shutout and had a team-leading 53 strikeouts in 492/3 innings.
The lefthander was throwing just over 90 miles an hour, and the potential he displayed caught the eye of the Chicago Cubs.
Shepard, who had one year of eligibility remaining at Stonehill, signed a free-agent contract with the Cubs last week and is now with the organization's rookie team in Mesa, Ariz.
"I kind of knew in the back of my head I had the ability to do it," said Shepard, whose team played its first game on Wednesday. "It was just about going out and performing and being seen. That's why I moved back to the mound.
"This season, I wanted to get back on the mound and start throwing again and it worked out. It was exciting. I loved it. It was a goal of mine (to play as a professional) and if it didn't happen this year, I would have had next year at Stonehill.
"I had a blast (playing the outfield). I was out there (as a junior) to get back in the swing of things. I still love hitting and shagging the ball in the outfield. I had fun, but I knew if I wanted to play at the next level, I was going to have to get back on the hill. I was pumped about doing it."
The Cubs began looking at Shepard during fall practices, and he put a lot of time in with Skyhawks pitching coach Nick SantaBarbara throughout the year.
All of that work paid off for Shepard, who was 1-0 with a 4.50 earned run average in four innings in 2009.
"We knew from his freshman year what a strong arm he had," said Stonehill coach Patrick Boen. "He's long and lean with a good, strong arm. He's got a great build for a pitcher.
"He really wanted to pitch again. He came back (from surgery) and felt pitching was his best option. He did a good job for us. I think he opened eyes to what he can do down the road."
Shepard, who is from Boxford and played at Masconomet Regional High, was confident he could bounce back from the surgery in time to be an effective pitcher once again.
"Once I was going to have the surgery, I made sure I went to the right doctor," he said. "I made sure I went to a known guy. I actually went to the Mets doctor. He said everything went well, so after that, I was pretty excited. I did rehab and tried to get back on the mound and it worked out.
"I guess you can say I might have gained a mile an hour or two. I think I'm just as good a pitcher now. I'm obviously a little more developed now. I worked with my pitching coach. I've got my off speed pitches down."
"It was pretty bad sitting out that year. I just watched. It reminds you that you want to get back out there and makes you work hard in rehabbing."
Shepard's older brother, Brenden, was his Stonehill teammate until getting selected by the Red Sox in the 28th round of the 2011 draft.
Brenden Shepard was 1-1 with 16 strikeouts in 10 relief appearances for the Gulf Coast League Red Sox last summer, but he is sitting out this season because of Tommy John surgery.
Another member of the Shepard family, Colin, will be a junior on the Stonehill baseball team next season. He started 34 games as a catcher for the Skyhawks this season after transferring from Bryant University.