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‘She was the pioneer’: Legendary Severna Park field hockey coach Lil Shelton dies at 90

Field hockey would not be the monumental success that it is in Severna Park, Anne Arundel County or even Maryland without Lil Shelton. No one who knew her well would dispute that.

From the first team at Severna Park in 1975 to her retirement in 2011, Shelton coached the Falcons to 31 county titles, 29 regional titles and 20 state championships, a mark unmatched by any Maryland coach in any sport, according to the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association record book. In 616 games over 37 years, Shelton amassed a record of 544-60-10.

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Lillian Weekley Shelton suffered a hemorrhagic stroke and died Sunday surrounded by family. She was 90.

USA Field Hockey Coach of the Year and Capital Gazette Coach of the Year many times over, Shelton is a member of the halls of fame at Severna Park High School, Anne Arundel County and National Field Hockey Association. She founded SPark indoor field hockey and the Field Hockey Junior League, and co-founded the Maryland State Field Hockey Association and the Maryland State Games.

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Shelton was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on Dec. 28, 1930 and began her career teaching physical education in Dothan, Alabama, where she met her husband Vince. They started a family in Richmond, Virginia, before arriving in Severna Park in 1971.

She began her athletic involvement at Severna Park High in 1973 as the first school softball coach. She started a field hockey program two years later when she realized the girls had nothing to do in the fall.

Before she established the team, Shelton taught physical education at a time when the boys got the good gymnasium and the girls used what was left. One day, she found field hockey sticks in the closet and started teaching the sport in the school’s front lawn in which a magnolia tree grew in the middle.

Shelton swore her first teams learned to play so low because they had to duck under the trees.

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Severna Park coach Lil Shelton hugs Cassie Ballard after winning the 2008 Class 4A state field hockey championship.
Severna Park coach Lil Shelton hugs Cassie Ballard after winning the 2008 Class 4A state field hockey championship. (Patrick Smith, Baltimore Sun)

In the early days of the program, the Falcons only had private school opponents in Anne Arundel and competed on inferior home fields.

“It was a fight from day one. ... She was constantly battling for that equality,” said Shelton’s daughter, Lorie Hankins, who played for Shelton’s first softball teams.

Shelton offered five-week summer hockey leagues long before she finally got a team into the Greater Severna Park Athletic Association Green Hornets. Wanting to raise the level of play in the county and not just Severna Park, she invited players from other high schools to help coach younger girls so the entire community could be exposed.

Hankins remembers hundreds of girls filling the field. Unheard of in elite clubs today, Shelton charged girls less than $20 for the entire summer and reinvested it into her program.

Among peers, Shelton was viewed as a rock star. Ginger Kincaid, who spent 39 years as coach at Glenelg before moving to Wilde Lake, dwelled inside Howard County and didn’t cross over until Shelton stepped up and created the statewide hockey coaches association, uniting the counties and instilling paths for girls to play hockey everywhere.

“She was the pioneer that we all followed. She was the barometer of how good your seasons, your teams were,” Kincaid said.

Finally being good enough to beat Severna Park in 2010 was the milestone that opened the gates for the Gladiators’ four future state championships. It was like being on the World Series stage, Kincaid said.

From Severna Park field hockey’s greatness came other powerhouses in Anne Arundel and beyond.

“I think other coaches would agree the reason South River and Broadneck are where they are is because they had to compete with Severna Park,” longtime assistant coach Ann Andrews said. “If Severna Park hadn’t become the strong program that it was, we’d just be where everyone else was. Arundel, Chesapeake are right there — these are the strongest programs in the state because of Lil Shelton driving to make her program so successful.”

Shelton’s influence was felt to the top levels of the sport. Dozens of Severna Park and Anne Arundel players moved on to play for decorated coach Missy Meharg at Maryland.

“Lil Shelton lives on through the minds and stories of generations of athletes, coaches and parents. A vigilant teacher of sport via discipline, fair play, hard work and tradition,” Meharg said in a statement.

Andrews received the call to become Shelton’s first assistant coach in 1986 when the county increased the budget enough for each girls teams to add one. By then the Falcons were already an established power.

Shelton’s “no-nonsense” practices stretched over three hours, sometimes ending when her assistants pointed out it was getting dark and the girls had homework. She had a well-planned curriculum for every practice and wanted every box checked. Saturday morning practices lasted four hours. The county later established rules that practices couldn’t go longer than two hours.

“I wouldn’t say she was a perfectionist, but she was like, if you’re gonna do it, you’re gonna do it right,” Andrews said. “The girls definitely worked hard, but they kind of had to, and they wanted to. I think a lot of them discovered things about themselves, how strong they could be, talents they didn’t know they had.”

Lil Shelton marks her 300th win at South River High covered in Silly String and Confetti.
Lil Shelton marks her 300th win at South River High covered in Silly String and Confetti.

For Hankins, seeing her mother’s touch in hockey everywhere she looks is painful for now. Shelton was so important to her daughter, Alison, and was Hankins’ best friend. When the team first started in 1975, Hankins used to grow jealous when players came over to their house and called Shelton “mom.” But then she understood. Shelton’s maternal influence fostered a dynasty, but also generations of strong women.

Tracy Atcheson played for Shelton from 1984 to 1988, came back to serve as her assistant and had two daughters that played Severna Park field hockey. Atcheson felt like she was part of her coach’s family and said Shelton treated every player like they had value.

“She expected a lot out of you, but you wanted to give that to her because she did it such a way that you wanted to make her proud. She brought the best in you out,” Atcheson said. “She made you feel like you can do anything.”

When Shelton announced her retirement at the end-of-season dinner in 2011, Andrews couldn’t get her speech out through tears. They all felt it was coming, the assistant coach said, but hearing it made them feel the truth.

Shelton became a dedicated attendee after retirement. Severna Park High dedicated its new stadium field to Shelton in 2018, one much different than the shoddy fields Shelton began her program on so many years ago.

“It was her life, she was so humble, and she did for everybody,” Hankins remembers. “She just didn’t understand: ‘Why? Why do I have a field named after me? What did I do?’ "

Shelton told Andrews more than once she wanted to die on the hockey field.

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“You can just dig a hole and put me right into Roberts Field,” Andrews recalled, “because this is where I want to be.”

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Shelton is survived by her husband of 66 years, Vince, her children Lorie Hankins, Boots Shelton, Gary Shelton and Glenn Shelton, and eight grandchildren. There will be a private funeral service, followed by a drive-by public visitation Saturday from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. at Severna Park Methodist Church.

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