“I had a name in the sport by being on the national team, so I think it was a great asset to come into this program and have that credibility to start off,” she said. “Not necessarily as a coach, but as a player.”
Shelton set an example of excellence for her team. She was playing at the highest standard, and she expected the same out of her players. She was strict with them, but they were up to the challenge, as their early successes showed.
Now, Shelton can’t be as active on the field with her team. But she has experience, and she said she is more understanding of the players. Her coaching style has evolved, but her standard of excellence is the same.
And it shows.
‘In love with the game’
Shelton grew up in the middle of four brothers and two sisters, and she tagged along with her brothers whenever they played sports, no matter what they were playing — football, kickball, baseball, dodgeball.
“I got my athleticism and kind of tomboy mentality from hanging with the boys,” Shelton said.
Shelton started playing field hockey when a friend asked her to try out in seventh grade, the first year she could participate in organized sports.
“I just fell in love with the game,” she said. “And I was naturally good at it because of my brothers, and so I just kept playing and stuck with it.”
Her talent and hard work brought her to West Chester State, now West Chester University, in West Chester, Pennsylvania, where she was on three national championship field hockey teams and one national championship women’s lacrosse team.
And she shone individually, recognized as the national field hockey player of the year three times — a unique achievement unrivaled in the sport.
“It’s still a surprise to me how it happened. I think that I did stand out as an athlete,” she said. “Because I had long hair, and I was kind of fast and quick, and I could read the game well, so I would have these moments, and I was just noticeable.”
But Shelton didn’t always want to be noticed.
“You know what was challenging, was back in those days, I was almost embarrassed to be an athlete. I naturally would be in the back,” she said.
“I didn’t want to score the goals, because I wanted other people to score the goals. I just wanted to step back and be the one to assist other people instead of being the one scoring the goal. And I do think there was a stigma of being a really strong female athlete at the time.”
‘Quite a legacy’
Shelton said she hadn’t initially planned to take the head coaching position at UNC.
She spent one year as an assistant coach at Franklin & Marshall College and was interviewing for an assistant position at Northwestern University, which she had serious interest in.
But after colleagues in the field convinced her to do so, she drove down and scrimmaged with the North Carolina team. She was amazed at the facilities and could see herself building a program here.
“I think that was a great turning point in my life, because I decided to travel down here to have a look at Carolina,” she said. “And like most people, I just fell in love as soon as I stepped on the campus.”
Kathy Krannebitter, now an assistant women’s lacrosse coach at Swarthmore College and former head field hockey coach at West Chester University, coached with Shelton for three years at UNC.
Krannebitter said Shelton brought energy and passion to the team and truly wanted to build the program, which she did — and did quickly.
“Karen was a great recruiter. She was very persuasive,” she said. “She quickly picked up a couple key players, and then the program just went nuts.”
Shelton said that when she came here, UNC was successful in North Carolina, but it had not yet broken out onto the national scene.
In 1983, the team went to the NCAA tournament for the first time. By the end of 1986, Shelton had brought the team to its first Final Four.
UNC is currently ranked No. 1 in the nation, and history backs up the team’s success.
Under Shelton’s leadership, UNC has racked up six national championships, nine NCAA second-place finishes and 31 winning seasons. The team has won the ACC title 18 times and is one of the University’s most successful athletic programs.
Shelton said she was stricter when she first started coaching than she is today, perhaps because she was so close to the game.
“I think I’ve come to understand them a little bit more,” Shelton said. “I’m older. I don’t want to say mellow, because I’m not mellow, but I’m not as strict.
“There’s more of an understanding that kids do make mistakes, they’re not bad people, and they’re trying — so I guess it’s just a better perspective.”
But junior midfielder Emily Wold, who is a member of the national team in addition to UNC’s team, said she doesn’t think Shelton is too strict.
“I guess some might think the strictness can be an issue because they don’t approve,” she said. “But I think a coach at such a high level, at such a top program, at a university, needs to be strict.
“They are the coach of it, and they know what’s best, so they deserve to set the rules and standards for us as players.”
Wold said Shelton has always been supportive of her training.
“I’ve had a great relationship with Coach Shelton as a player, especially her support toward me being on the national team and on the UNC field hockey team, because she’s been all for whatever I wanted to do as a player,” Wold said.
Wold said she thinks Shelton’s own experience with coaching and being on the national team helps her better understand her situation. But Wold said she doesn’t know much about her coach’s past.
“I know she has a pretty impactful history, but we don’t actually know really much about it, which is probably bad,” she said.
Krannebitter said when her team played against Shelton and UNC, she was always struck by the players’ confidence.
“They knew that if they could follow their game plan, they were going to come out successful,” Krannebitter said. “That has stayed through with Karen’s teams from the start.
“That’s quite a legacy to leave a program.”