Five years ago, Tara Shields watched as a pony-tailed dynamo broke in with the Heritage High School varsity.
That kid was really something, and Shields was blown away by the way she played.
Five years later, Shields, a Maryville Christian School fourth-grader, is that player.
The next Cait?
“I told her, ‘You’re not going to be the next Cait,’” Maryville Christian athletics director Richard Corbett said. “‘You’re going to be the first Tara.’”
Shields pumped in a game-high 14 points, and the Lady Eagles defeated Walland, 32-22, to win the small-school division of the Blount County Elementary Basketball Tournament recently at Heritage Middle School.
The championship was the first for a Maryville Christian girls team. The title comes two years after the unbeaten Lady Eagles (14-0) went winless for the season.
“Two years ago, these girls didn’t win a ball game and didn’t score in double figures,” Maryville Christian coach Becky Clabough Word said.
That made the championship all the more sweeter, Shields said.
“It feels awesome!” she said. “This is the first Maryville Christian School team to ever get to the championship.”
It’s one that could put Maryville Christian on the map in a big way in years to come.
Shields, whose darting drives and skilled ball handling turned heads in the tournament, first took an interest in basketball after watching former Heritage sensation Cait McMahan break in as a high school freshman. The current University of Tennessee sophomore played with an abandon that drew record crowds to area gyms during her four seasons as a Lady Mountaineers. When Shields was 5, her parents, Tori and Trent, took her to see McMahan play for the first time.
“Wow!” Shields said. “I wanted to be like her.”
Just how serious her daughter was soon became apparent, Tori Shields said.
“She said she wanted to play like Cait,” Tori said. “She would dribble through the living room and into the kitchen. It got on my nerves, but I let her do it because I knew it would pay off.”
McMahan, who scored all of her team’s 38 points in the first elementary game she ever played, averaged 20 points per game for the Eagleton eighth-grade team one season; McMahan was in the fourth grade at the time.
Last season, Shields, then a third-grader, was named All-Blount County for the first time — on Maryville Christian’s eighth-grade middle school team! On the summer AAU circuit, Shields plays two age groups up.
Whether from 3-point range or off the drive, Shields, who averaged 18 points per game this season, scores with an ease that made many Maryville Christian games this season a foregone conclusion by halftime. The Lady Eagles led Walland, 26-14, at intermission, with Shields equaling the Lady Indian total single-handedly. Post player Megan Wells would finish with 10 points for the victors, with Cassidy Anderson adding four.
Leah Thomas, a guard from the same mold as Shields, led Walland with 11 points, with Preston Robinette chipping in nine.
In the second half, Shields didn’t take a shot, preferring instead to get her teammates more involved. A drive and soft underhand pass to Wells, who converted a layup, was as good as it gets at any level.
That’s the aspect of her daughter’s advanced play she prizes most, Tori Shields said.
“A coach made the comment recently that for someone with her ability, she’s not selfish,” she said.
“She gets a lot of assists,” Trent Shields said. “I think that’s what puts her above a lot of players at this level. She can hit the post players.”
Shields did more than emulate McMahan. When the high school All-American signed with Tennessee two years ago, Shields turned her room into a veritable Lady Vol shrine, complete with an autographed basketball and Tennessee jersey from McMahan, along with a picture of Lady Vol coach Pat Summitt.
“Her room is all Lady Vols,” Tori Shields said.
Word knows first hand what it takes to play the game at the highest level. With her at the point, Heritage became a prep basketball power in the early 1990s, a winning tradition that has yet to cool. After high school, Word played four seasons at Division I Tennessee Tech.
Shields has a bright future, Word said, but she’s more than just a basketball player.
“She’s a phenomenal athlete for her age,” Ward said. “She’s just a good elementary ball player. Mostly, she’s just a good kid.”