Over the past 10 years, Karen Shelton has headed one of the most successful athletics programs in the country, let alone at UNC. Brian Keyes sat down with Shelton to talk about field hockey, UNC and women's athletics over the past 10 years for the The Daily Tar Heel's special Decade in Review series.
The interview has been edited for style and brevity.
Where was the field hockey program 10 years ago?
I don't think it was in a bad place. In 2007, we won the championship undefeated and in 2009, we kind of stole it. Maryland was undefeated going into the final game, and we came from behind, and it was miraculous. So I think we were in a good place. All we try and do every year is put the best team that we possibly can together, and I think we recruit good kids, we've had great recruiting continuity. It stems from the University itself, it attracts the kind of quality student athlete that we look for. It's just kind of keeping a consistent recruiting base, but also a consistency with our training.
You've been to the Final Four every year this past decade, been the NCAA runner-up five times and you've just finished a repeat national title, do any of those seasons stand out to you in particular?
You know, I think that we've tried to establish that consistency, that's what we're super proud of. You get to the championship game, it's hard to get there and even harder to win it. We've had heartbreak. You know, I felt for Princeton this year, because we've been on the other side so many times.
None of them stand out, I think we have a process and a way that we go about things every year, and it's different every year because the team changes every year. However, it's somewhat consistent. I do think that my assistant coach Grant Fulton, he's been a continuous member of my staff. Staffs change year to year, but Grant's been with me all through that time, and he's been fantastic. And together, we try and do the right things and train really important habits for successful programs and winning. We talk about that all the time, this just doesn't happen, you have to establish good habits day in and day out, and then when the pressure's on you can rely on those habits.
If you had to pin down one singular moment to define the past decade, can you think of anything?
A moment? I don't know that there's a moment. I do know that winning last year was important for us because we'd come so close. We'd have these couple of years where we were "supposed" to win. We said that to our team at the time, there are no "supposed to's." You're ranked higher, you get ready to play a Princeton in the final, they upset the team we were "supposed" to play. There are no supposed to's. But we've lost some we were supposed to win.
I think winning in the final last year was an important breakthrough for us. And I think people all around the country were feeling like we couldn't win the big one. We never felt that way. We know how hard it is, and we gotta earn it. And sometimes things happen one way or another in a final. One year we had a bad injury in the semifinal. We made it to the final but it hurt our structure; it hurt our rotation. Sometimes it can be this or that. You gotta be good, you gotta be lucky, you gotta have good goalkeeping. All of that has affected us one way or another in the years that we didn't win.
You now have more championships than any ACC coach not named Anson Dorrance, and you've arguably had the most successful program in the past decade. What's it been like to head a program that's sustained that level of dominance for so long?
I'm incredibly proud, I think that our kids, we try and keep them humble, we try and stay humble because I get to come to work every day. Roy Williams is a mentor, Anson Dorrance is a mentor, Dean Smith when he was still here at Carolina was a mentor. It doesn't just happen, it happens through amazing influences, and those people that I've mentioned as well as others have really molded who I am as a coach.
To do this, for me, it's always been about bringing distinction to the University. So I'm so proud to work at the University of North Carolina, I think it's an amazing place. We all know that, it's the southern part of heaven, it's a world-class university. There's just so many reasons to be super proud to be here. Every day I get to come to work, and it's not hard work. I just try to do the best I can to somehow have our program bring credit to the university. So to have the chance to win whatever; one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight (championships), it's amazing and I'm happy I've been a part of that.
Can you put Erin Matson's performance during the past two seasons in context? Have you ever seen anybody go on a tear like she has?
Well, she is an incredibly special player, and also one that's very humble. She works hard, she's grown even as a leader, she's grown even as a player. She's growing as a person, more importantly. And she is special, there's no doubt about it. You go through your first two years of college, and you've never lost a game — you've never lost a game at home, to say at home is a big thing, but to have never lost a game in her career is something special.
I am humbled to be her coach, I'm proud that she's picked North Carolina, that she feels this is the right place for her. I hope that she's enjoying her experience which makes me really happy. I hate to put more pressure on her, but she's clearly the best player we've ever had. Certainly the best offensive player, but she also plays great team defense as well. She's very unselfish, very hard working, becoming more and more of a leader.
You've spoken to your players a lot about female empowerment over the years, so how have you seen women's athletics grow at UNC?
Over the long haul, it's grown so much. I've had great athletic directors, it started with John Swofford, who took a chance on me. Dick Baddour was obviously an amazing athletic director, and I think Bubba Cunningham has really ushered us into a new era.
Our girls work just as hard, they do exactly the same thing as the football players, the basketball players, the baseball players. We all do the same thing. At Carolina, we're treated pretty much the same, and that's pretty cool. And we've grown over the years, as has every program. They had to. They had to realize that they had to commit to the women's programs. But at Carolina, I think we're at another level, and I'm proud of that.
Where do you see the program going in the next 10 years?
I think we'll continue to stay as one of the top programs. We have the most beautiful, the most modern stadium in the country, and I think that's recognized. I would expect that we continue to recruit really well, I would hope that we will continue to coach as well as we possibly can and do things the right way and provide amazing educational opportunities for these women. And that's the kind of profile we have for our students, they come here education first, and then they're able to combine it with amazing athletic experience. And we really do try and make the experience in our field hockey program more about their enrichment than simply wins and losses. And that's what we do.
What about for yourself in the next 10 years, do you plan to still be coaching in 2029?
Hahaha I doubt that, but I think the program will continue to grow and thrive. I haven't decided what I'm going to do quite yet, I've thought about retiring but also I love it, and I think that as long as we're continuing to be very successful and my having a positive impact, and able to represent Carolina at the highest level I feel really good about that. I do love my job, it's a privilege, it's an honor. I love what I do.
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