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Shelton may be the greatest field hockey coach of all time, but she isn't satisfied

Karen Shelton, Head Coach of the UNC Field Hockey Team, coaches her players at the game against Wake Forest at the Karen Shelton Stadium in Chapel Hill on Friday April 23, 2021. Photo courtesy of UNC Athletic Communications.

Forty years from the beginning, a stadium dons her name: Karen Shelton. 

Nestled away on the south side of UNC's campus, the house that Shelton built as the head coach of the North Carolina field hockey team has never hosted a Tar Heel loss. Through 37 contests, 3.5 years and haymaker attempts thrown from every top contender the sport has to offer, the Tar Heels are unbeaten in her stadium.

Despite the weight of past success and COVID-19 altering every aspect of the Tar Heels' lives, this season ended just as the year before, and the one before that: National Champions, North Carolina.  

Once again, the Tar Heels and Shelton — the architect of a dynasty four decades in the making — hoisted the national championship trophy, with the coach at the center of it all.

"She cares for all of us, it's just something that's really special," said forward Erin Matson, who has lost just one game in her three-year UNC career. "You can really feel with her, she wants all of us to succeed."

This time, the coronation took place in Shelton's stadium — with students packed shoulder to shoulder just outside the fences to watch the title game. This time, for the ninth time, Shelton had once again led her team to glory. 

But Shelton sees no reason to rest now. There's always the next game to win.  


When a then 24-year-old Shelton took the helm at North Carolina in 1981, the state was a desert for the sport.

"It was tough, I will say," Shelton said. "Some kids quit right away because I trained them hard. So I came in with my background, and I trained them with what I knew."

What she knew was world championship-level field hockey as part of the U.S. National Team. Despite being unable to compete in the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow due to the American boycott, she was offered the chance to take part in the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.

After losing only one game in her collegiate playing career at West Chester State, Shelton was already recognized as one of the sport's best players at the domestic level. And on the international stage, she competed as such. Winning its final game of the competition against Canada, the U.S. team earned the bronze medal — still the only Olympic medal U.S. field hockey has ever won. 

"Opening ceremonies was the most proud moment I’ve ever had in competition," Shelton said. "It's just spectacular, it's such a great feeling."

The style of play she learned competing internationally has stayed with her during her coaching career at North Carolina. Her teams serve as a stark contrast to the more physical style of play that most American teams employ.

"We have a bit of a European hockey style, a hockey way," assistant coach Robbert Schenk said. "Karen knows how the Europeans play."

Shelton got her first coaching job in 1979 when her mentor, Nancy Stevens, asked her to be an assistant under her at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania.

It was an hour commute from her day job as a health and physical education teaching assistant, but she took it because she loved the game — beyond any reason and time constraints.

Her time at Franklin & Marshall was one of the hardest periods of her life, enduring the two hours of daily driving and the adjustment to coaching.

"It was hard, but it was good for me," Shelton said. 

Soon after, Shelton got the call to helm what was one of the southernmost field hockey programs in the nation: UNC. 

"I got the call from North Carolina," she said. "I got on campus and it was so beautiful … I just knew that I could build a program at this great university."


In her early years at UNC, Shelton worked as a part-time employee. She had to drive the team to games in a van. She was paid $7,700 her first year. She wouldn't become a full-time employee until she won her first national championship in 1989.

"Even if you go back through the employment records, it doesn't even count," she said. 

But in the decades since she took the helm, with the enforcement of Title IX improving equality in college sports and access to women's sports continuing to improve, the attention paid to sports like field hockey has continued to grow. "There's a greater appreciation for the fact that the women train as hard, they commit as much," Shelton said. 

What most people thought about field hockey when Shelton began as the Tar Heels' coach was simple: 

"'Oh, the girls are playing? Isn't that cute,'" Shelton said.

But of course, they didn't realize what some do now, and what Shelton always knew: 

"These characteristics and traits are trained," Shelton said. "The leadership, the confidence under pressure, the ability to think on your feet. The conflict resolution, that you gotta work things out."


Part of what keeps Shelton motivated entering her 40th season is the roster she coaches, an all-star array including four 2020 All-Americans: Amanda Hendry, Eva Smolenaars, Meredith Sholder and Matson.

Matson, who was honored as an All-American for the third time following her junior campaign, came to UNC already possessing an elite skillset and the talent to push her game to the next level. But after three years of learning under Shelton, whom she met at a field hockey tournament before she even started high school, Matson has laid the foundation to become the greatest American field hockey player of all time. 

Part of the secret to Matson's success is a trait she shares with Shelton, and one the head coach has helped further instill in her: never being satisfied with past success. 

"She's always reminding me, 'Don't get comfortable,'" Matson said. "We kind of share that mindset."

A few decades after she first came to Chapel Hill, Shelton's squad is almost unbeatable. But, that's not what she wants her players to think. 

"She has a certain way of motivating the team to make sure they're ready," Schenk said. "She coaches the team and she says the inspirational words to make sure that the team knows that 'Yes, we're doing really well, but we are not there yet.' And that is also the best thing about the teams that we've had in the last few years, they've worked so hard because of that."

But to hear Shelton tell it, what keeps her motivated after 40 years of winning — after more than 700 victories, nine national championships and winning just about every accolade a coach can — is simple: watching her players grow on the field and in life, winning and forming relationships.

"I love watching the kids achieve and get better and fight through stuff," Shelton said. "I love that. I love when they get here as little freshmen, to watch them grow and mature, to watch them establish these lifelong friendships."


@dthsports |