A Tribute To Them

Coach Karen Shelton reflects on her players, a championship season and the best field hockey stadium in America

UNC Field Hockey Coach Karen Shelton sits in the middle of her team

Coach Karen Shelton reflects on her players, a championship season and the best field hockey stadium in America

A Tribute to Them

Coach Karen Shelton reflects on her players, national championships and the best field hockey stadium in America

By Karen Shelton
Photos and Videos By Jeyhoun Allebaugh

Coach Karen Shelton announced her retirement after North Carolina’s undefeated 2022 field hockey season, following 42 seasons as coach and an NCAA-record 10 national championships – the story below was written after their 2018 championship.

The 2018 season is one I’ll never forget.

We fielded a really special team, a mature team that never looked past the game in front of it and never took an opponent for granted. The result: these young women finished an undefeated season in Louisville, bringing home an NCAA field hockey national championship to Chapel Hill.

And with the opening of a new field hockey stadium on campus, this season was a time for me to reflect on my 38 years with this program. Over those years, I’ve had the great fortune of my teams winning seven national championships. I’ve had the even greater pleasure of coaching and mentoring 38 teams made up of such impressive and inspirational women.

“When I came here, we had three scholarships… Now, we have 12.”

When I came to Carolina in 1981, we played on a grass field below Hinton James Residence Hall. One day, we showed up to practice and found bulldozers parked on our playing field as construction for the Smith Center began. At that point, we moved to Navy Field, near the law school. After winning our first two national titles in 1989 and 1995, momentum built for a new facility. In 1999, we dedicated Francis E. Henry Stadium on the same site. For nearly 20 years, Henry Stadium was the Taj Mahal of American field hockey stadiums. It was a powerful statement for women’s athletics — on the Carolina campus and beyond.

But as part of the new athletics master plan, we needed to move again after the 2016 season. So while a new facility was being built, we practiced and played at Duke, schlepping to Durham two or three times a week. It was a challenging season that brought out the best in our team and it certainly made us appreciate what we have now.

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That wait was worth it. We can now welcome 900 fans to watch the team play on a first-class surface surrounded by state-of-the-art amenities. The team building — with locker rooms, a team theater, a sports medicine space, a players’ lounge and more — creates a real home for the players. If Henry Stadium was the Taj Mahal of field hockey, this stadium is… I haven’t figured out that analogy yet, but it is incredible. It’s the best in the nation.

I still can’t believe that my name is on it. I can’t bring myself to call it the Karen Shelton Stadium so I’ve stuck to calling it “the stadium” or “KSS.” I am humbled that Ken and Cheryl Williams — field hockey supporters and friends for more than 20 years, and loyal Carolina supporters whose mark is all over the campus in many important ways — felt compelled to name it for me. It’s the only athletic playing facility solely named for a woman on our campus. That’s a powerful statement, and I’m honored to be the first. The stadium speaks to the support that women’s athletics has received from Carolina athletic directors going way back, from John Swofford to Dick Baddour and now to Bubba Cunningham. I also want to give a special thanks to Anson Dorrance for what he’s done with our women’s soccer program and for setting the bar for women’s athletics here at Carolina.

The stadium, I think and hope, reflects the work I do on a day in and day out basis: Training strong, powerful, beautiful women.

I’ve had the privilege to coach hundreds of young women. I want to empower them, and I want them to know that I’m their biggest advocate. They’ve gone on to play for the U.S. national team, compete in world championships and Olympics. They’ve also gone on to successful careers in medicine, coaching, teaching, dentistry and business, among other fields. My name is on the stadium, but it’s really a tribute to them.

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When people ask me about recruiting Joy Driscoll ’98, I can say, “Joy recruited me.” I remember her writing and writing and writing to me. And then she called. I don’t remember much about that conversation, but I do remember at the end of it, I had taken a chance on a determined kid from California. I couldn’t offer her much of a scholarship when she stepped foot on campus, but by the time she graduated, she had earned a full one. She played for me in the years before Henry Stadium and was part of teams that won back-to-back-to-back national championships. She scored the third and decisive goal in the 1997 national championship game against Old Dominion.

Joy played a critical role in our defense in those years. I’ll never forget intrasquad scrimmages with her going head to head with then assistant coach Nick Conway. They battled. She was tough as nails on the field and whip smart off it. She earned a degree from UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School and has gone on to become a giant in the tech industry. When there weren’t many women in that industry, Joy was there. She was a senior vice president at Adobe and now is chief information officer at Vivint Smart Home. When she came back last fall to speak at a career symposium for my players, she credited skills she gained at Carolina for that success.

Nicole Frey ’99 came to Carolina from Virginia Beach. She was the kicker on her high school football team and even kicked the game-winning field goal in the Virginia Beach city championship. When I read that, I knew I had to have her on my team. She played goalie for us for four years and was on two NCAA championship teams.

Just like Joy, Nicole thrived at Carolina and on the field. She loved the discipline required to be a member of our team. After she graduated and spent some time in the business world, she decided a desk job wasn’t for her and joined the Navy. She’s my only player to join the military. Her dad was in the Navy and my dad flew helicopters in the Army so she and I bonded over that shared experience. So it didn’t come as a surprise that she was joining the Navy, and I couldn’t have been prouder. She entered Officer Candidate School, a particularly tough route to take. The physical conditioning was no problem for her because of the work she put in here. She made it through OCS and has gone on to fly bigger and bigger planes, and is stationed in Bahrain in the Persian Gulf.

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We had a lot of leaders on this year’s team. Everyone, whether a starter or someone who hardly played, had a role that was valued by the rest of the team. They each found their niche on the field and off.

Ashley Hoffman and Eva van’t Hoog emerged as leaders in team meetings. They led us through conversations that made us better. They also led on the field. Malin Evert and Morgan Goetz were two other outstanding seniors in our starting lineup, which was one of the best I’ve had in my career.

Leila Evans didn’t play much, but she was invaluable to her teammates and fellow student-athletes by serving as co-president of the Student-Athlete Advisory Council and working closely with Bubba Cunningham and the Athletic Department to benefit all of our student-athletes.

MK Harrah, one of our backup goalkeepers, was our spiritual leader this season. She didn’t even bring her equipment to the Final Four. What she did bring to Louisville, though, was an 18-minute video recapping our season that she played before the championship game. She had gathered clips from people across campus, family, friends and alumni. It was inspiring.

“My name is on the stadium, but it’s really a tribute to them.”

We’ve come a long way since 1981. The game has changed so much. We track our players’ training workload, how much they run each week to make sure we’re not overtraining. We meet weekly with a sports psychologist to ensure we’re prepared mentally. When I came here, we had three scholarships — the NCAA allowed nine at the time — to recruit student-athletes. We won games, and The Rams Club helped us secure more scholarships. Now, we have 12.

At the same time, so much hasn’t changed. I’m still a defensive-minded coach. I still do everything I can to create a high-performance environment, where I work with players to find new ways to get better, to put a plan in place and then act on it, then debrief and do it all over again. It’s no different than what Roy Williams and Anson Dorrance do, and what Mack Brown will do. It’s an intense environment that translates into success after my kids graduate.

I still always try my best to live up to our Carolina Athletics mission: We educate and inspire through athletics. In my career here, I’ve always been driven to bring distinction to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, whether that’s through winning championships or through having our players distinguish themselves in all walks of life. I’m here to help develop strong, powerful, beautiful women on the field and off it.

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