Skip to main content

Leadership and dedication are winning formula for 30 years

Women's field hockey Coach Karen Shelton
Women’s field hockey Coach Karen Shelton

Some kids worry they will never be good enough.

Not Karen Shelton. When it came to sports, Shelton always knew she was good. Her brothers left little doubt.

She had four brothers and two sisters, but it was her brothers she shadowed.

“I really credit my older brothers for helping me develop a sense of play and joy in having some athleticism,” she said. “Whatever they were doing, I was doing, too, whether it was kick ball or dodge ball or sandlot baseball.”

It was back in the day when kids spent all day outside playing sports, with the only adult supervision needed to be called home for supper. Shelton went wherever her brothers went, playing whatever game in the neighborhood they could find.

And because they were Army brats, their neighborhood kept changing. They discovered early on that being good at sports was their entrée to instant acceptance.

Hiding out on defense

Shelton was born in Hawaii, and the family moved to Texas, Virginia, Maryland and California before her father retired and they settled in Pennsylvania.

By then, she was in the seventh grade and about to get her first chance to play an organized team sport.

The sport was field hockey. And for the first time, her teammates were other girls. Suddenly, being the best player on the field was not a way to fit in. It was a way to stick out and be looked upon as an oddball, Shelton said.

She did what she could to hide: She played defense to avoid the attention of scoring all the goals.

“I was always somewhat embarrassed to be so much better than all the other girls,” Shelton said. “That is why, I think, I gravitated to defense. I wanted to be the one that would pass the ball and set up my teammates to score.”

But the ruse only worked so long. By her senior year, she was recruited to West Chester University of Pennsylvania, a field hockey powerhouse where – still playing defense – she was a member of three national championship teams and a national championship lacrosse team.

She was also named national field hockey player of the year three times – a record that remains unmatched.

Going for gold

The modern game of field hockey evolved in England in the mid-19th century. Originally considered too dangerous for female participation, it later became popular with women who once had been relegated to croquette and lawn tennis.

English physical education instructor Constance Applebee introduced the sport to the United States in 1901 while attending a seminar at Harvard.

The U.S. women’s touring field hockey team participated in its first international competition in 1920. In 1975, the United States appeared in Edinburgh, Scotland, for the first world championship of the International Federation of Women’s Hockey Association.

Shelton was named to the U.S. National Team in 1977 as a college student, and after graduating in 1979, set her sights on bringing home a medal at the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow.

It was the first time that women’s field hockey was included in the Olympics. But it also was the first time the United States – in protest of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan – boycotted the games.

Shelton overcame her disappointment and went back to work to get ready for 1984. The bronze medal won by the women’s field hockey team in the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles remains the only medal the United States has won in the sport.

“To this day, my proudest moment as an athlete was to stand during the opening ceremony in ’84,” Shelton said.

A 30-year run

It was while training for the Olympics early in 1981 that Shelton got a call from Dolly Hunter, then the women’s field hockey coach at Carolina, who wanted to talk Shelton into taking over the job.

Shelton was 23 at the time and about to take an assistant coaching position at Northwestern.

“I didn’t think I was ready to be a head coach, but Dolly told me, ‘Just come down and have a look.’”

Hunter knew what she was doing, Shelton said. “It took me about 15 minutes for my eyes to start getting big and for me to start saying, ‘Wow,’” she said.

During the past three decades, the team has had only three losing seasons. In 27 winning seasons, the team has collected 16 ACC championships and six NCAA championships.

Winning in overtime

She is only 53, but as Shelton heads into her 31st year of coaching, she has come to terms with the fact that her career is nearing an end.

She has won five national Coach of the Year awards and eight ACC Coach of the Year Awards, and in 2008, was inducted into the National Field Hockey Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

Shelton probably has nothing left to prove. She stays because of the joy she still gets from the game – and her players.

“I love my sport,” Shelton said. “I love being out on the field and the competition of game day. But what I love most of all is working with these kids. I think they help keep me young.”

The team won its last NCAA championship two years ago and finished second last year after a double-overtime loss. “I think we’re poised to make another championship run this year,” Shelton added.

She is married to Willie Scroggs, senior associate athletic director, who she met when he was the men’s lacrosse coach. Their son, William, is a rising junior on the lacrosse team.

Shelton did not think her life could get any sweeter until this past spring when she learned she had won a 2011 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award.

“In all honesty, winning a Massey has been incredibly humbling,” Shelton said. “I read those C. Knox Massey Award names every year and I am overwhelmed that I am now on the same list.”

As a player, she wanted to set her teammates up to score. After 30 years of coaching, she believes it has been her players who set her up for this honor.

“I know I have been their coach, but they are the ones who actually performed, and so I am very grateful to them,” Shelton said. “My name is on that list because of what they achieved.”

Originally published by University Gazette: July 13, 2011

Comments are closed.