Severna Park coach Lil Shelton watched her field hockey team celebrate its 20th state championship Saturday and wondered out loud, “How can I leave them? It’s so much fun.”
But Shelton had in fact already decided to retire, a decision she announced at the squad’s end-of-season banquet Thursday night.
“It was pretty weepy,” Shelton, who had coached the team for 37 years, said in a phone interview Friday. “But I told them, I’m not going to disappear. I’m going to sit up in the press box at games with the announcer and make comments — ‘Hurry up! Get down that field!’ No. I wouldn’t dare to do that. It’s really hard [to retire].”
Shelton — whose 20 titles are a National Federation record — said she made the decision for a variety of reasons. The primary deciding factor, however, came last summer when athletic director Wayne Mook told her the school was going to be torn down and rebuilt, partly on what is now the field hockey turf field. Shelton said when she heard that, she knew she didn’t want to go through all the upheavel.
“To me, it would have been like starting over,” she said “When I first came here, I started out having our practices behind the school on the softball field. I didn’t want to go through all that again.”
Shelton, who arrived at the school in 1971, built the Falcons’ program from scratch after finding a bunch of worn sticks in a school closet.
“I don’t know when they were ever used before, and I didn’t know anything about the game — I’d never played,” she said. “But I read books and started the girls playing in my physical education class.”
In 1975 she fielded her first team — the first team in Anne Arundel County — and built the program from there.
“When we started, we played on the front lawn of the school because there was nowhere else,” Shelton said. “The girls loved the sport and we begged for it become a varsity sport. Title IX had passed in 1971, and that helped me. I’ll never forget the day they gave us our kilts and shirts for the team. It was 1975, and I think we went 5-5 that first year.”
Four years later, in 1979, Shelton’s team won its first state title.
Along with the 20 state titles, Shelton leaves with 31 county championships, 29 regional crowns and a career record of 544-60-10.
This year’s team finished 17-2 and as the Class 4A champion (its sixth title in the last seven years).
“We worked all year to get this title for Ms. Shelton,” junior Marissa Balleza said after the 3-1 victory over Bethesda-Chevy Chase in the 4A final. “It’s huge for us to get her the 20th title.”
Later, Balleza, thinking about rumors of Shelton’s possible retirement, said the coach was the one who created the team atmosphere that made the Falcons such a strong unit.
“She’s getting older, and everybody loves her,” Balleza said. “She’s a motherly figure. She’s the one who looks out for everybody.”
Over the years, Shelton never stopped caring or working. She started the Maryland State Field Hockey Coaches’ Association in 1989 in an attempt to build camaraderie among the coaches, and even after retiring from teaching in 2000, she continued to coach.
Last Wednesday, her family and many of the girls she mentored surprised her by showing up at the state senior game held at Severna Park. One senior from every team in the state came to play. There were so many girls that there were two games instead of one. That in itself could have been considered a tribute to Shelton as one of the game’s local pioneers.
"It had nothing to do with retiring. No one knew anything for certain about my retirement plans. Oh, there had been rumors, but I didn’t want to say anything to anyone all year because I didn’t want it to distract my team and I wanted to tell my girls before I told anyone. That’s how it should be and that’s what I did.
"But at the senior games, they gave me a beautiful clock, and the president of the coaches’ association read a beautiful letter. I was so surprised. I saw a bunch of my former players in the stands before the game, and I wondered how they all got there together. And my daughter – it was raining, and I wondered, ‘What’s she doing here?’ It didn’t dawn on me.”
Asked what she’ll be doing now, Shelton laughed.
“I don’t know, clean my house to start,” she said. “It’s been neglected a long time. My husband, Vince – we’ve been married 56 years – will at last get dinner and I have eight little grandchildren. It is hard to retire, but I’m very comfortable in my decision.”