Beyond the Numbers: Remembering Coach Shelton

By now, everyone has heard former Severna Park High School field hockey coach Lillian “Lil” Shelton —who passed away on January 24 at the age of 90 — won 31 county titles, 29 regional titles and 20 state championships. However, Shelton was so much more than the winningest high school coach in the state of Maryland’s history. Here are some of the behind-the-scenes stories from two of her former players, who like hundreds of other players were profoundly impacted by Coach Shelton.  

My story begins with my older sister, Kristen, who was also a falcon field hockey player. At 6-foot-3, Kristen owned the longest field hockey stick they made. I went to all her games and quickly knew I hoped to follow in her footsteps and play too. I’m 5-foot-10. The Burke sisters were better built for basketball or volleyball instead of the backbreaking sport, but we couldn’t resist joining the incredible program and culture that Shelton built. 

“Coach Shelton had an incredible amount of energy and stamina at her age when I played for her,” said Kristen Burke. “It’s remarkable to think that she was in her early 70s and spending additional time with her players outside of practice and games with ski trips, team dinners and sleepovers. Her spirit was contagious, and she created so many positive memories that I cherish to this day.”

I loved going to Kristen’s end-of-year banquets and seeing the thoughtful gifts that Shelton gave to every single player. Players who scored three goals in a game would receive a literal and physical hat trick. A mini straw hat with blue puff paint that read, “Hat trick.” Coach Shelton also used to put soda cans in each corner of the goal. Then, everyone would line up along the circle and aim shots at the cans. At the banquet, girls were rewarded a soda of their choosing for every can knocked down. Watching teenage girls lugging home cases of Cherry Coke or Mountain Dew certainly caught my attention. 

This is one of Kristen Burke’s hat tricks and mini field hockey sticks given from Coach Shelton at an end-of-year banquet. Shelton wanted Kristen to work on getting her 6-foot-3 frame low.

When my banquet time came, Shelton gave me a beautiful wooden butterfly in honor of my “social butterfly” moments. She took the time to get to know all of her players. We were a bunch of adolescents trying to figure it out, but sometimes I think she knew us better than we knew ourselves.

Another fond memory my sister and I love to laugh about was how Shelton opened her home to her players for an annual sleepover. However, she had more guests stop by then she bargained for and definitely not enough snacks for the uninvited. 

On the night of her sleepovers, high school boys would dance in their underwear outside of Shelton’s house. They’d do the “On the Line” cheer that involved a cancan complete with high kicks. This was one of many cheers all field hockey players sang and sung by junior varsity players during halftime of varsity games and vice versa. Yes, a cancan was also done at halftimes. Those masked gentlemen and guilty party can breathe a sigh of relief that you will remain anonymous. For now… I can see Shelton’s backyard from my own home and can’t help but smile thinking about this silliness. 

One of my favorite traditions was creating “buttons” once a season. These were construction paper creations with candy and a slogan to inspire teammates on game day. For instance, “Roll over the competition” with Rolo candies. I’m proud of my slogan, “We could beat you now or later” with the complementary Now & Laters. I enjoyed getting my feet wet with an early career interest in advertising. 

Yours truly, reliving her glory days as a Falcon field hockey player.

I could go on and on about my cherished memories. However, it’s not until looking back now that I realize the most valuable lesson Shelton instilled in her players. Discipline – on and off the field. Shelton always said, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” The three-hour practices were a result of that and when game time arrived, her players were prepared. Outside of practices and games, it took a lot of responsibility and planning to participate in the team dinners, bagel breakfasts and making sister bags filled with snacks (or mostly junk food…). 

These lessons of discipline have served me well in mine and my sister’s lives, as well as Shelton’s other players, several of which went on the play sports in college. I like thinking about Shelton’s ripple effect too. How her memory will live on in her players who go on to coach or inspire their daughters to play sports too. I know it certainly has for me. 

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