North Carolina’s undefeated 2022 field hockey season will be the last for head coach Karen Shelton. After 42 seasons and an NCAA-record 10 national championships, Shelton on Wednesday met with her team to announce her pending retirement.
“I don’t have the words for what it has meant to represent the University of North Carolina for the past 42 years,” Shelton said. “The decision to retire is an extremely difficult one, but I feel like it’s the right time, on the heels of an outstanding season. I’m so grateful for this opportunity, to John Swofford, who took a chance on hiring me, to Dick Baddour and now Bubba Cunningham and Chancellor Guskiewicz and all of the other administrators and colleagues I’ve had the pleasure of working with. I’ve had amazing coaches on my staffs over the years, none better than my current assistants: Grant, Poppy and Manuel. Most of all I’m grateful to the many Tar Heels who have been part of our program as players and continue to support us. You all have represented Carolina so well, and I’m honored to have been your coach.”
A national search for the program’s next coach will begin immediately and Shelton will remain the program’s head coach until a successor is named.
Shelton is the winningest coach in the sport’s history, with a career record of 745-172-9. She also leads the way in NCAA championships (10) as well as NCAA Tournament appearances (39), victories (77) and games played (106). Her teams have recorded 40 winning seasons in her 42 years at the program’s helm.
“Karen Shelton is, quite simply, an icon of Carolina Athletics,” Director of Athletics Bubba Cunningham said. “Her legacy is more than her phenomenal 10 national championships and 745 victories – it’s about the hundreds of women who have gone on to successful lives and careers, and continued to credit her influence many years after playing for her. She has served as a mentor, teacher, champion and role model not only to her field hockey student-athletes, but also to her fellow coaches and staff members. Thank you, Karen, for 42 years of representing the Carolina family with integrity and excellence.”
The Tar Heels’ 2022 NCAA title was the team’s fourth in five years and marked the third time in the past five years that Carolina had finished the season undefeated. Shelton earned ACC Coach of the Year honors for the 12th time in her career. National staff of the year honors are still pending for this season, but Shelton has won the honor on eight previous occasions, five times as national coach of the year and three as national staff of the year, which is how the National Field Hockey Coaches Association currently designates the recognition.
Since 2018, the Tar Heels have competed at Karen Shelton Stadium, the only Carolina facility named for a female coach. In five seasons of competition at Shelton Stadium, Carolina is 49-2, including the 2020 NCAA championship and ACC titles in 2018 and 2020. The facility will host the 2023 NCAA Championship.
“Karen Shelton is a legend of UNC athletics, setting records across every level of collegiate sports,” Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said. “For 42 years, she has led her players to victory after victory, with record-breaking seasons including this year’s national championship and fifth undefeated season. Her character, commitment to her players and passion for Carolina have made her an example for our entire campus community. Karen, thank you for your life-changing career as a teacher, mentor and champion for our student-athletes.”
Shelton is a member of the National Field Hockey Coaches Association Hall of Fame for her achievements as a coach and the USA Field Hockey Hall of Fame for her performance as a player. During a standout collegiate career at West Chester, she was part of three field hockey national titles (as well as one in lacrosse) and was named the national player of the year three times.
Shelton came to Carolina in 1981 as the fourth coach in program history. She continued to play for the U.S. National Team during her early years in Chapel Hill, starting for the 1984 squad that won a bronze medal, still the country’s best finish, at the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games.
Her first win as a head coach came in her second game at Carolina, 2-0 over High Point at home on Sept. 24, 1981. Hundreds have followed and on Nov. 6, 2020, playing at Karen Shelton Stadium, she became the winningest coach in the sport’s history with victory No. 701.
With 10 NCAA Division I Championships, Shelton is tied for the most ever by a female coach.
Throughout her career, Shelton has groomed her players for success after Carolina. Carolina student-athletes are high achievers on the field and in the classroom, adding academic honors to All-America accolades. Tar Heel alumni are successful in fields such as medicine, coaching, teaching, dentistry, business and finance.
Many of Shelton’s players have gone on to represent the U.S. in international play. Five of the 16 players on the U.S. roster at the 2016 Summer Games were from UNC. Every U.S. National Team since 1989 has included at least one Tar Heel.
A very visible ambassador for North Carolina and its athletic programs, Shelton was inducted into the Order of the Golden Fleece, a campus honor society, in March of 2002. In 2011, she received Carolina’s C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award in recognition of her longtime service and dedication to the University.
Earlier this year, she was named one of the 50 Champions of Carolina Women’s Athletics for her overall contributions to UNC-Chapel Hill’s proud tradition.