With six national titles in a field hockey program started from scratch, Karen Shelton is one of the most gifted college coaches. She’s nagged, and motivated, by the ones that got away.

Two seats down from Karen Shelton on the postgame press conference dais, senior co-captain and four-time first-team All-American Kelsey Kolojejchick ’13 looked mystified as she struggled to hold back tears. This was the field hockey player’s third straight loss in the NCAA title game, and it seemed impossible to her that it had happened again.

“It’s just hard when you’re that close for three years in a row,” Kolojejchick said, shoulders slumped over crossed arms, disappointment pouring out at the end of a brilliant career. She had been a part of the 2009 team that captured the trophy her freshman year. But since then, the Tar Heels had lost two consecutive championships in overtime to conference rival Maryland. This time it was Princeton who spoiled the party, and by the same narrow score as the previous two years: 3-2.

Her teammate, senior co-captain Caitlin Van Sickle ’13, also indulged in some should-haves, hoping “at least one of the three [championships] would have gone our way.” She leaned forward, and then back, absentmindedly pinching the skin at her jaw line, wiping a threatening tear with the neck of her T-shirt.

At the other end of the table, their coach sat with impeccable posture. Shelton’s cap, as always, was pulled down low on her forehead, and her ponytail sat at attention through the adjustable band at the cap’s back. She rested her arms at 90-degree angles on the table in front of her and listened calmly as her players, raw and emotional, fidgeted their way through the torturous ritual of crystallizing for a handful of media the meaning behind the moment: What were you thinking when you fell to the ground, sobbing, as time ran out? Can you talk about what it has meant to be a part of this team for four years, to play in four title games and win only one of them? Who gave you that hug at the end?

“I don’t even know,” Kolojejchick said, rubbing wet eyes.

Over the past six seasons, teams coached by Shelton have played for the national title five times and won twice, all achievements worthy of celebration by any standard definition of success. But ‘standard success’ is not the level at which Shelton — who is still the only woman ever to be named field hockey’s national player of the year three times — has ever dwelled.

If Kolojejchick’s comments were full of grief, Shelton’s were marked by a cool and seasoned magnanimity: Princeton played a great game, had a great season. Sometimes you win, sometimes you don’t. That’s just the nature of sport. No — she had no comment on the penalty stroke that won the game for Princeton. Don’t want to get in trouble. No comment on the goal scored on a shot that seemed too high. She was disappointed, yes, but proud of her team.

Still, under that tightly fitted cap were aches as big as the tears that her players fought. Shelton is more familiar than any other college coach with the perilous waters surrounding the land of Supposed-To and how they can lap about the legs of an otherwise impressive accomplishment.

Other field hockey programs have won more national championships — Old Dominion has nine and Maryland has seven to UNC’s six — but no other Division I school has reached the title game as often as Carolina has, with its 15 appearances out of the 17 Final Fours it has made across Shelton’s 32 years as head coach.

Twice before in the Tar Heels’ history they’ve lost back-to-back title games, and those occurred over a remarkable 11-year period in which UNC played for the championship nine times and solidified its place as a national powerhouse in the sport. After losing in double overtime in both 1993 and 1994, Carolina went on to win the prize in each of the next three years. Over the past six seasons, Shelton’s team has played for the national title five times and won twice, all achievements worthy of celebration by any standard definition of success.

But “standard success” is not the level at which Shelton, who is still the only woman ever to be named field hockey’s national player of the year three times, has ever dwelled. For a woman her family members, current and former players all call the most intensely competitive person they have ever met, there’s a flip side to winning six national titles, and that is watching the ring slip off your finger the other nine times — a record that UNC also holds.

It’s just nine losses, out of the 690 career contests she has coached, among the staggering 550 of those that were wins. But those losses came in the biggest game of all, and they are “absolutely heartbreaking,” Shelton says. “Some of the losses hurt more than others, but it’s all bad when you get there and you don’t win it all, I must say.”

Shelton isn’t the only one in her family who knows what it takes to climb to the top of college athletics; the trophy case she shares with her husband, former UNC men’s lacrosse coach Willie Scroggs, boasts a combined nine national championships won as head coaches and seven titles earned as players. Between them, they also own 25 ACC titles (a field-hockey-record 18 of those for Shelton).

Scroggs has been a frequent sounding board for Shelton, full of Chicken Soup for the Runner-Up’s Soul, counseling her that there are no supposed-tos in sport, that a bad call here or a stumble there can turn a game on its head. That very little difference exists between a loss played perfectly and a win earned with mistakes. And whether it’s a tale of how many more last-second shots Michael Jordan ’86 missed than made, or how Jack Nicklaus won 18 major championships but finished second 19 times, Shelton says finding the right eraser to wipe the slate clean and get on with the next season is part of the job.

“You want to be [in the final],” she said. “You want to be in the battle, and I also know there are 70 teams who would trade places with us. Hearing that story from Jack Nicklaus made me feel better. And I’m always lookin’ for ways to feel better about [finishing second],” she said.

Scroggs, now the senior associate athletics director at UNC, said it should come as no surprise that Shelton has had her share of low times following the recent losses.

“As a representative of the program, and with her team, she’s very, very good [at handling losses],” Scroggs said. “Personally, though, she takes it hard. Very, very hard. You do get worn down, as anyone would. All of our coaches at this level experience the same things that Roy Williams [’72] or Larry Fedora experience about coaching, about the emotion and the exhaustion, the highs and the lows. Sometimes we assign these [competitive] qualities because they are men’s basketball players or football players. But they’re not different from the baseball kids, the softball kids, the lacrosse kids. They’re the same kind of kids; they go through the same situations: big games, hard losses, great wins.”

Tough player, tougher coach

Shelton always has chased first place. As one of seven siblings in an Army family, she had an appetite for challenge from day one — quite literally fighting for the last roll on the table. And if her brothers and sisters were hungry for competition, then she was insatiable.

She followed her older brothers wherever they went, and no matter how rough on her they might be, she kept coming. Throw it at her, she’d catch it. Pitch it to her, she’d hit it. Dodgeball, kickball, football. Onto the Army’s original obstacle course at Fort Belvoir, Va., under its barbed wire, over its gullies and through its pipes, she would return home more mini-soldier than grade-schooler, coated in dirt and filth and loving every second.

“She was always, always tough,” said her brother Robert. “We used to have Karen play baseball with us sometimes, and she was a better baseball player than boys who were two years older than her. She could field better, she could hit better and she could throw better. Even when she played softball with us in high school, she was better than the boys.”

Their pilot father, a Purple-Heart, Bronze-Star lieutenant colonel who followed his earlier missions in World War II by flying helicopters in Vietnam, embodied all the qualities that fed Karen’s challenge-driven temperament, and she “worshipped” him, Robert said. (If West Point had competed in field hockey, Karen says, she would have been an Army girl in a heartbeat.)

But it was their mother, a Dutch immigrant whom their father had met during World War II, who stoked the fires of resilience at home, never giving an inch in a game with her children, no matter how young they were. Even today, the Shelton brood’s holiday gatherings are filled with competitions, including an annual family football game that has to be refereed by Scroggs to keep the peace.

When Army life ended in 1969 and the family settled in the Philadelphia area, the Shelton siblings “spread out in different directions, adjusting to a lack of structure within a civilian lifestyle,” Robert said. Karen became a preteen daredevil on a motorcycle, a 12-year-old self-described “dirt-bike girl,” ripping through the powdery earth behind their home and at a local course with older brother Michael by her side, doing tricks and jumps, craving speed, testing the limits of her newfound velocity, wanting to be the best.

“She always wanted to be the best, at everything,” Robert said. “And she rode very well and very recklessly.”

But one day after school in seventh grade, a friend asked Karen if she wanted to stay after school and try out for the field hockey team. She quickly fell in love with the game.

“It’s a difficult sport to master, the skills are tough, but it’s fun,” Shelton says with obvious affection and perhaps a bit of an itch to get out on the field right at this moment. “It’s the competition, it’s the skill execution, it’s the decision-making under pressure, it’s the physical fitness. It’s got it all.”

Shelton became a celebrated college player: speedy, tenacious and dead-on intuitive at side back, a three-time national champion at West Chester State. Her seemingly immortal athleticism extended to lacrosse and track, where she won another national title in the former.

West Chester was so deep with hockey talent that it fielded four teams — one for each year in school. Shelton made the senior team as a sophomore and only because the rules prohibited her from doing so as a freshman.

She was so good that she bumped her playing idol, West Chester senior Nancy Stevens, from her spot on the U.S. national team during her sophomore year. Shelton played for the U.S. for the next seven years — her first game was in front of 83,000 fans at Wembley Stadium in London — and won a bronze medal at the 1984 Olympics, which remains the United States’ best Olympic finish in the sport.

When Shelton arrived in Chapel Hill in 1981, she was just 23 and still in the prime of her athletic career. What she thought she wanted was an assistant coaching job like the one she held at Franklin & Marshall in Lancaster, Pa. That setup, along with a gig selling hockey sticks to high schools, paid the bills and gave her plenty of freedom to play with the national team.

But when she visited Carolina, she saw something more than just its rare-and-coveted turf playing field, which was crucial for international-level play; she saw a huge challenge, ready for the taking.

Shelton was still playing with and against the greatest hockey talent in the world the first time she picked up a whistle at UNC, and she brought national team-level expectations to the Tar Heels, whom she says were “little more than club level” at the time. The change was not always well-received.

“I was trying to establish discipline and a change of attitude. … I didn’t start slow; I started fast,” she recalled. “And we made fast progress. But my best player at the time was a real hothead, the team’s leader — and here I come, this new, young coach.”

Shelton found help with the pitfalls of coaching students who were only a year or two younger than her in Scroggs, the then-33-year-old coach who had an office next to hers and had just directed his team to an undefeated championship season, the first Carolina title in any sport since men’s basketball in 1957. What had begun as mentoring turned into friendship, and then something more. They married in the fall of 1984. When son William was born in 1990, one year after Shelton’s first NCAA title, Scroggs shocked lacrosse fans by retiring from coaching after 12 years and three national titles.

“I had a young son at home, and a young wife who was going about 100 miles per hour,” he said. “It was a good time to go.”

He knew that Shelton was just getting started, and soon, so did everyone else. Following the 1992 season, a Pennsylvania newspaper published the story of how Shelton lured prized local recruit Cindy Werley ’97 to Chapel Hill by vowing that she would win a national championship.

“Pretty bold promise, huh?” Shelton said at the time.

Bold, and almost accurate. Werley, who became a two-time national college player of the year, did not win one NCAA title while at Carolina. She won three.

A coach’s coach

University of Connecticut coach Nancy Stevens, Shelton’s playing idol from college, says losing in a title game is still a success: “You can’t win it,” says Stevens, who, in 35 years of coaching, never has, “unless you’re there.”

“Sometimes coaching can become entertainment,” she says. “I know John Calipari can coach, but I think he’s more of a friend of the players. Karen is more like a coach’s coach. She’s a no-nonsense disciplinarian who accepts nothing less than the best effort. Karen doesn’t accept excuses. And maybe the most remarkable thing is that she’s been able to do it over four decades, winning championships in different decades.”

Dr. Leslie Lyness ’90, one of four national players of the year under Shelton and a member of her first title team, would agree. Lyness, 45, who had an accomplished career with the U.S. national team before becoming a neurosurgeon last year, said she still hears Shelton’s command for running sprints — ready, go! — as she begins a surgery.

“She just has to say three words, and you’re in,” said Lyness, who also spent eight years as a UNC assistant coach. “She’s a leader, and you want to follow her. And if you follow her, she’ll get you there. She’s an unbelievable motivator. What an honor to be a field hockey player for a coach who has been that good, for that long.”

Shelton, though, says she has evolved as a coach in recent years. She has become “nicer” and “less militaristic” in her leadership approach, perhaps because motherhood changed her, perhaps because college athletes also have changed. The further from her players she grows in age, she said, the closer to them she feels, and the less rigid she becomes — a far cry from that 23-year-old out to prove her mettle in 1981.

“I was really hard on my athletes early on. I ran them like I was run on the national team level. My expectations were tougher; I was harder, less sensitive, and maybe that’s because I was closer to them in age that I didn’t get too close to them personally. Now, they want to know who I am.”

Meghan Lyons ’13, with whom Shelton has developed a close friendship, has noticed the difference.

“Over the last four years, she has been so much more open personally, with freshmen, from the start,” Lyons said. “She’s someone you can go to if you have a problem.”

While the title game losses of the past three years have been painful for the competitor in Shelton, she says they also have stretched her coaching skills in surprising and welcome ways.

“You earn wisdom through defeat. I’ve gotten older and wiser as the experiences accumulate. When you’re a young coach, you don’t think experience is all that important. When you get to be an older coach, you realize that all of those experiences helped shape you, and so you do become hopefully better, different. It settles you. I don’t think anyone would describe me as mellow. But I do think I’ve changed.”

Part of that change comes from seeing her son, who had been a high school All-American in Chapel Hill, cope with minimal playing time on the Carolina lacrosse team.

“Being a parent is so difficult,” said the elder Scroggs, who added that his self-aware son helped his accomplished dad keep the lack of playing time in perspective. “Whenever you see your child in a situation where he’s struggling, you want to help. That’s been good for us to experience: ‘Here’s what the parents of the kids Karen is coaching feel like.’ ”

Near the end?

Shelton has lived the full spectrum of athletics at UNC and feels its successes and its failures intensely. And in that vein, her team’s on- and off-field endeavors are as much about proving that Carolina’s reputation is still intact in the face of recent scandals as they are about her own drive to be the best. She maintains a culture where Robertson Scholars like junior forward Loren Shealy — the first athlete from either Duke or UNC to be awarded the prestigious scholarship — can make the dean’s list and be the team’s second-leading scorer while reaching the pinnacle of college sport. The 2012 squad posted its highest-ever GPA (3.2), a feat the Tar Heels also accomplished when they won the NCAA title with an undefeated season in 2007.

“I know we’ve been through a lot of changes, with different chancellors, different ADs, different football coaches,” Shelton said. “But the University remains, and it is rock solid. I’m just so proud, and privileged, to work here. And I always strive to bring distinction to The University of North Carolina. That’s what drives me more than anything else. That’s why these championships are so important. I believe in this place.”

But this place may not have her for much longer. Restructuring within the athletics department last year under new AD Bubba Cunningham saw Scroggs left out of the senior leadership team. While Scroggs says he understands the move, it does have the 65-year-old thinking about retirement. And that has Shelton thinking about retirement, too.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if, in two more years, I say, ‘That’s enough,’ ” Shelton said. “If [Scroggs] got a part-time job he felt good about, then that would take some pressure off the ‘two more years’ plan. But I want to spend more time with him, and I want to be able to visit William when he moves away, too.”

Before that day comes, though, Shelton says she has some unfinished business, and it begins this fall with the quest to reach a fifth consecutive title game with a young, talented team. She wants to hoist the hardware at least once more before she leaves the remarkable program she has built — once more for athletes like Kelsey Kolojejchick and Caitlin Van Sickle, who were exceptional enough to be NCAA champions despite what the record book says.

And for the coach’s coach, who isn’t finished making promises just yet.

“After the losses we’ve had,” Shelton said with a smile, “I know that the next title is going to be that much sweeter.”

Copyright 2013 UNC General Alumni Association

From the September/October issue of the Carolina Alumni Review