KAREN SHELTON STADIUM
By: Andrew Stilwell
In February 2017, the memorable announcement was made that UNC Field Hockey would move into a brand-new stadium for the 2018 season. It would be located just beyond the right field wall of Boshamer Stadium on what used to be the shady old Ehringhaus Field. The new field hockey complex would feature a 900-seat stadium around the new playing surface, LED scoreboards and lighting, and an exciting team building that would include locker rooms, team theater/video room, sports medicine space, a players' lounge, meeting space, and coaches' offices.
It sounded perfect. All it needed was a name.
For Burlington's Ken and Cheryl Williams, the decision whose name the field would carry was a simple one. They let Hall of Fame Field Hockey Coach Karen Shelton know their decision over dinner.
"We were meeting Karen and her husband Willie at 411 West," Cheryl recalled. "I had printed up a picture of the mock-up of the stadium, and told her ‘the new field hockey stadium will be named for you. What name do you want to call it? You get to decide.' When she got it, she started to cry, and Willie started to cry, and he didn't even know it was going on. It was really sweet and touching that he got teared up because he knew that something was happening for her and her efforts were appreciated."
Longtime field hockey supporters, the Williamses knew that they wanted the facility named for Shelton, who has been the head field hockey coach at North Carolina since 1981.
"We've been associated with field hockey for over 20 years, and we've grown to know Karen and Willie not only as coaches but as friends," said Cheryl. "I felt that with the experience she has at UNC, and her six national championships, and the fact that she's gone to the National Championship game so many times, that it needed to be for her."
"I didn't want it to be a corporate sponsor or someone that didn't really have any experience or feeling with the sport," her husband Ken continued. "Karen will tell you that she's honored, but that she's not worthy. That's rubbish."
For Coach Shelton, having the new facility named in her honor was very special.
"I can hardly put it into words. I love this program. I love this university," Shelton said with emotion. "All I've done my entire professional life here is to try to work hard to bring distinction to Carolina somehow, someway. I've worked with hundreds and hundreds of wonderful student-athletes over the years, and it's really their achievements that have created this opportunity.
"I'm overwhelmed by the generosity of Ken and Cheryl Williams and how and why anyone would feel I'm worthy of this."
"The most important thing about Ken and Cheryl is that they're both just the nicest people that you'd ever want to be around," Shelton continued. "They're real, they're down to earth, and it's just a privilege to be one of their friends. Their generosity is unfathomable. They give not only to our program, but to Men's Basketball, to Swimming, to Volleyball, to Softball, to the Lineberger Cancer Center. Their generosity has been incredible."
The Field Hockey stadium also holds the distinction as the first on-campus athletic venue to be named in honor of a woman, a milestone of which Shelton is very proud.
"There aren't many facilities or buildings on campus that are named for women," she said. "Carmichael Dorm is named for Katherine Carmichael, and the Sonja Haynes Stone Center and Spencer Dorm, but I can't think of many others. I think from a women's empowerment perspective, and the respect that women's athletics get on campus now, I think we've come a long way."
Though Tar Heel Field Hockey's former home, Francis E. Henry Stadium, wasn't quite 20 years old, the new complex is a huge improvement in the eyes of the six-time NCAA Championship coach.
"We would have gladly stayed at Henry Stadium. I think it had 20 more years of wonderful life ahead of it," Shelton said. "But when we were asked to move here, we said we'd do it, as long as we got a facility that's as good as Henry. But I didn't really believe that it would turn out this nice."
Shelton and her staff worked with the architects and designers to make the new facility "first and foremost for the student-athletes, so that it would serve their needs." She noted the theater room and second floor dining facility as some of her favorite parts of the facility.
"I love the theater because it's really professional, and I think it's something nobody else really has that's dedicated to them," Shelton added. "Other programs use the men's basketball's theater, or they have a theater shared by multiple sports. No one has their own. I also love the dining facility that overlooks the field. That's going to be a study lounge. I call it a player's lounge to the team, and an alumni lounge to the alumni. I wanted that space to be for the student-athletes or our guests."
When they first started supporting Carolina Athletics in the 1980s, the Williamses were originally eager to participate through the endowed scholarship program because they wanted to build priority points for men's basketball tickets.
"We have a daughter who was a pretty good athlete," Ken said. "We've always supported women's sports, and so we asked ‘who needs the help?' Fortunately for us, we were assigned to field hockey, and it has become so much bigger than just priority points. We've made lifelong friends and relationships because of it."
"We didn't know anything about the sport!" Cheryl said with a laugh. "We went to the library and checked out a book to see if we could understand the rules. We sat with the field hockey parents at games a lot to find out what was going on. Sometimes they didn't know either!"
For the Williamses, the decision to donate to the new field hockey facility was a wonderful outlet to lead the way as the athletics landscape at Carolina evolves for the future.
"Our goal for this particular facility was to be a leadership gift," Ken said. "The Olympic sports, because they don't get as much support as the bigger sports, need a little leadership from a philanthropy standpoint. As part of the campaign, we just thought it would be a good way to build some momentum for not only field hockey, but for soccer and lacrosse, the track – there's a lot of things that are going on right now."
"It's one of the things that I always try to preach," he continued. "The fact that people don't give, because they don't think if they don't give $10 million, that they can't give. That's categorically not true. Small gifts are just as valued as large gifts. Enough small gifts make a large gift. I think it gives you a sense of enjoyment and fulfillment for yourself and participation in something that's really good."
Coach Shelton feels that the field hockey donors like the Williamses are instrumental to the success of the program.
"There was a turning point around 2007 where I told myself ‘that's it, I'm not going to pinch pennies anymore,'" Shelton shared. "We started staying in slightly nicer hotels, and we'd have team meals, instead of going to a fast food restaurant as a team. We had a meeting space, we'd have a catered meal, and it was a more professional prep. But, we'd go over our budget every year. So, in order to do what we wanted to do, I had to find that money somehow. So, our donors have stepped up very generously in that regard."
The Williamses were quick to point out to potential donors that every gift is an important gift.
"We've been extremely fortunate to be in the position to be able to do these kinds of things," Ken said. "We're hoping that other people want to give. If nothing else, we hope they can sense a little bit of our excitement – being a part of something like this and being included."
"Almost all of the teams have groups that support them, so if you can give as little as $100, it still buys the team something that they need. And if they have 50 people that give $100, that's a lot of money." Cheryl added.
"The kids deserve it," Ken concluded. "Anyone who has a daughter who has been involved at all in athletics knows the value of that to that child. So, why not share that with a broader universe? That's important."
Coach Shelton noted that the gift from the Williamses helps start a "new chapter" for the Field Hockey program.
"What we had over the years has always progressed. When I first got here, we played on the Hinton James field that's now a parking lot for the Smith Center. Then we moved to the Astroturf that had these small bleachers. That became Henry Stadium, and now we have this wonderful new stadium," she said. "Its perfect little setting is just right for us. I love that part of it too. I love everything about it."
When asked if she felt it was the most beautiful facility in all of Division I field hockey, she was quick to respond with a smile.
"Yes, undoubtedly. Hands down. It's gorgeous."
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