LIL SHELTON: OLD SCHOOL TO THE MAX
By Al Mattei
Hard by the banks of the Severn River on the western banks of the Chesapeake River, Lil Shelton has formed a dynasty over the past quarter century. It is a dynasty forged through traits which may have lost their meaning in the latter years of the American Century: honor, hard work, and, above all, tradition.
Whatever people think of tradition, they seem to have worked at Severna Park (Md.). The odd thing is that, despite the team's excellence, the list of field hockey national teamers and collegiate All-Ameicans is shockingly short for a school with a dozen state championships. Too, Shelton's win total is stunningly small -- if she had competed in a state that allows more than 12 regular-season games, she could easily be approaching 500 wins.
The 2000 season represented a time of change for Shelton, as she retired from teaching. The Founder and Shelton met for this interview in a place she knew as well as anybody else: Severna Park High School.
Lil Shelton is thumbing through a field hockey catalog, checking the vast assortment of equipment available for sale.
She comes to the section on uniforms, a subject of some significance to her. When Shelton came to Severna Park in 1971, there was one set of uniforms -- one-piece tunics, no less -- for the volleyball, basketball, and softball teams.
Shelton notes a section of photographs of jerseys that are striped, made of polyester, and some that are sleeveless, like those worn by Team USA.
When she sees the page, she wrinkles her nose and says, "I'm sticking with the tradition."
Is Lil Shelton a field hockey coach worthy of the term "old school?" You betcha. For a quarter-century, Severna Park has had breakfasts on game days, has arrived unusually early for pre-game warmups with the same military-style chant, and has had players wear ribbons in their hair.
The field hockey team has posed for annual team pictures dressed in team sweaters and the same kilt pattern; the team retires a half-dozen worn kilts every year, thereby creating a uniform tradition similar to the New York Yankees.
It is a formula that has worked, to the tune of 19 sectional and 12 state championships. But underlying the tradition is this formula: "If you have fun, then you'll work harder. If you work harder, they'll be more successful. If you're more successful individually, the team is successful."
"What more can you ask for?" Shelton says. "It's so simple, but so many people don't get it."
Shelton says these words with strength as well as a disarming Southern lilt. Shelton, a native of Atlanta, learned her field hockey at, of all places, the University of Alabama.
"I had to learn all the different aspects of the game, but there were no teams in Tuscaloosa, so we had to play it," says Shelton. "When I got the team together, we went to a clinic, and Flo Bell was up there. We took the whole team up there and we learned field hockey."
After Shelton's first jobs in Alabama and Virginia, her husband was transferred to the D.C. metropolitan area in 1971. She found work in the Severna Park school district in 1971 and never left.
"I think I came in one day to the high school, and I think I subbed for a science teacher, and we had so much fun," she says. "All the kids sat around and said, 'Just talk to us; we love your Southern accent.' Not much science got done that day."
An opening to replace a physical education teacher soon followed, and Shelton took it.
"When I first came here in 1971, they didn't have girls' sports," she says. "They had had them a long time ago, but they cancelled them for some reason. I never found out why. They had just started volleyball, basketball, and softball for girls, and no JVs for any of the teams."
In Shelton's gym class, she taught the game of hockey to eager students. It was enough that, the day she made an announcement over the school public-address system for the inaugural team, some 30 recruits showed up.
"We played on the little front lawn," Shelton says. "The trees were there, so when we went down the field we had to duck under the branches. There was a magnolia tree on one end, and I think it was in the way."
The Falcons were the only public-school field hockey team in Anne Arundel County at the time, meaning that the team would have to travel. There was only one local rival, The Wroxeter School, that closed only a couple of years after the start of the Severna Park field hockey program.
"It was on the banks of the Severn, on the banks on the cliff, so while you were playing, you had a beautiful view of the river," recalls Shelton. "They were so nice to squeeze us into their schedule, since we had started so late in the year."
Since the beginning of Severna Park field hockey, there has been success. The 1979 team was the first to win a state final, and fihished out the 20th Century with 15 straight state tournament appearances.
"The 1979 field hockey title was unbelievable," Shelton said. "We were playing (Potomac) Winston Churchill, and they were very good. We were down there warming up early, and here they come, marching down the steps to the lower field, and they had the same kilt we had. They were wearing white, so we didn't know who was away and who was home. I can remember the goal that was scored; it was 1-0. I can remember every little detail about that team."
The odd thing is that she has been able to win her dozen state championships without mega-star athletes. Shelton has not sent field hockey players to many Top 10 schools; she has never had a player make the U.S. national team.
"I don't need to have one girl in all the time to promote her and build up her stats," she says. "If we get ahead by three, everybody on the bench goes in the game. If I selected all of these girls for the team, they'll all get a chance to play."
There have been scholarship athletes with individual skills who have come through Shelton's program, but everything has been subsumed and harnessed torwards team goals and team successes.
"It has always been a very close-knit group of girls," Shelton says. "I once had seven girls go to Loyola at the same time. We would drive up there and watch them play."
That closeness has created unusual loyalty. In 1999, for example, Lissa Norris played the last third of the season with a broken wrist. Not many players around the country would have even dared to step on the practice field, much less reclaim a starting spot.
"She did have the doctor's OK, and she wasn't in any danger," Shelton says. "I had a player named Elo Goodman who tried out, broke her hand, and still was better than everybody else. She had the field sense; all she needed was the stickwork."
Field sense is something that is a hallmark of Severna Park teams; many of Shelton's hockey players are converted soccer players. Also, as half of the best scholastic girls' lacrosse rivalry in the country, Severna Park is synonymous with the spring game.
Given the single-sport ethic which is now endemic in women's scholarship athletics, a number of Shelton's best hockey players now play lacrosse.
"If we had a professional lacrosse league, I could see having a player in fall ball, winter ball, playing all the time," Shelton says. "But these (lacrosse players) won't even make the Olympics. I can't see them making them make a choice for college. They play both field hockey and lacrosse, and love both sports."
Still, there are those who have achieved in hockey.
"I have had a lot of amazing girls," Shelton says. "Karen Eiring was one who, in P.E. class, would always go to the ball and be all over the field, and couldn't stay in one position. I once told her, 'You will never make a hockey player.' But she became a captain, and got a full-scholarship to Clemson University, when they had a team."
Shelton's imprint on the field hockey community is pretty sizable, as past president of the National Field Hockey Coaches' Association. In that realm, she remains a traditionalist. At times, she is at odds with her collegiate peers in the ways that the modern NCAA program is run.
"I'm seeing some of the college coaches fall into the pattern of the men," she says. "They browbeat and overtrain; girls' bodies are not built to take the stress. They are having their ACLs torn and have to take a year off, only to get reinjured. The women's knees are not meant to take it, and there's nothing we can do about it."
The career of Lil Shelton should have more national-teamers, and certainly, more wins than the 347 she carried into the 2000 season. This is because Maryland limits its scholastic field hockey teams to 12 regular-season games. Shelton helped shephered a rule allowing field hockey teams to add a two-game tournament to its schedule without having to drop any regular-season games or lose postseason eligibility.
"I wrote up the recommendations, and gave it to the Board of Controllers," Shelton says. "The thing is, if you do something for field hockey, you have to do it for all other sports, which includes buses and officials. These are all of the unseen factors."
Shelton's influence is also pretty big in other ways. She convinced the county's recreational department to find a youth field hockey league. The league more then doubled in three years, and the number of participants in hockey now outnumbers football.
"We have three divisions in our league, but I don't want to have 'select' teams -- I want to make sure that the not-so-good players have an equal chance with the elite players," Shelton says. "Put some of these developmental kids together with the good kids, and they have to work together, and they'll all have a chance to win."
Also, in 1999, Anne Arundel County funded the planting of several Bermuda-grass hockey fields, and Shelton was able to exert some influence in that effort.
"I went around and around, trying to get them to cut the grass short enough. When the grass is long, you can't play the ball and you start hacking at it," Shelton says. "It turns out that I do aerobics with the head of the Board of Education."
One day, the conversation became a little heated.
"Football would tear up the stadium fields if we cut it any shorter," the Board president said.
"So, why don't we just cancel field hockey? Where are our priorities?" Shelton turned on her heel and walked away.
"Lil, come back, come back," was the response. "We'll work out something."
While the big stadium fields ("Don't call them 'football' fields," Shelton says) in Anne Arundel County don't yet have the quality grass yet, that day may be coming.
But it won't come while Shelton is a coach and a teacher at Severna Park. She retired from teaching in 2000, but is still working on the field hockey program she calls "her baby."
"I wouldn't leave this for an administrative position for anything," she says. "It would have been different if I had stepped into somebody else's shoes."
So, for the foreseeable future, you can bet that Shelton will be taking that walk with the seniors on the first day of practice to discuss what traditions to change for the next season.
And you can bet that the next group of seniors won't want to change a thing.