It was a normal afternoon in Chapel Hill for the students walking Ehringhaus path.
The stream of students walking up from South Campus to somewhere a little farther north kept forward on their path, briskly trudging up the bricks to their next destination. To their right, they passed by a baseball scrimmage.
On their left, the most dominant athletic team at the University of North Carolina was finishing off their latest victim in their new home.
The 11-0 North Carolina Field Hockey team scored within two minutes from the start of the game, had seven goals at halftime, and scored two more before pumping the breaks and passing out the rest of the clock, defeating the Ball State Cardinals 9-0 on Sunday afternoon. UNC played 24 total players, four different goalkeepers, and had eight different players score. It was their seventh shutout of the year.
“We're practicing good habits, winning habits, how to move the ball, to get your eyes up so that you can pre-scan before you get it so that you know what your next pass can be,” coach Karen Shelton said. “Today was to demonstrate that not only our starters have good habits, but the entire team does.”
While the result of the game on Sunday was typical for the Tar Heels, the events of the week surrounding it certainly were not. Three games in five days, all done in a stadium named so recently, the signage directing fans to “Carolina Field Hockey Stadium” hadn’t found the time to be updated.
But the stadium did. And now when Karen Shelton looks across the turf from the bench and glances at the grey metal letters across the brick of the 900-seat stands, or looks up at the press box from on the field before the game to see the Carolina Blue letters emblazoned on the navy building, it sinks in just a little deeper, that the facility she waited for over a year has an extra feature she wasn’t expecting.
“Karen Shelton Stadium,” the letters read.
She still hasn’t gotten used to it.
“It's still kind of awkward when I hear the announcer say it, it's just hard for me to really realize that my name is on a facility here,” Shelton said. “Can you guys imagine that?”
Shelton is first female coach to have an athletic facility named after her at UNC, and one of only two coaches in UNC history to coach in a facility named for them.
The other coach? Dean E. Smith.
And while the naming is an honor, she says, the facility’s amenities garner most of her praise.
“I didn't think we could do better than Henry,” Shelton said, referring to the team’s old home, Francis E. Henry Stadium, which was demolished in 2017 to make way for a new football practice facility.
The struggle to get that new home is still fresh to Cathie Burns. A long-time friend of Shelton’s and supporter of the program, she serves as a “Tar Heel ambassador” for UNC Field Hockey, helping people find seats, passing out wet towels on hot days from her Powerade cooler, and chatting up fans about the Tar Heels’ top competitors across the country.
“Everything (about the new stadium) is top notch, it's really been done professionally,” Burns said. “It represents the culture of how Karen has coached over the years.”
UNC played at Duke for home games and practices throughout 2017, with time chunks as big as six hours for players to practice, between busing to and from Durham and practice itself, redshirt freshman goalkeeper Megan Ragusa said. Burns saw how tough that environment was, even if the team eventually made the Final Four.
“We all came together to try to have a good parent and friend and fan community because it was tough being off site, particularly at Duke,” Burns said. “That wasn't exactly friendly.”
Burns particularly loves the new location of the stadium, because she says the field gets a lot more foot traffic than Henry did. Combine that with the new Carolina Blue seats, a grassy hill also available for seating, and an open concession stand, it’s a good combination for some of those students trudging up to North Campus or heading back to South to veer off and take in a few minutes of a game.
Good attendance can be tricky for the field hockey team. The sport isn’t as popular in North Carolina as soccer or volleyball, which tends to make the crowds lighter. Through Saturday, field hockey ranked dead last in average home attendance among the Olympic sports teams in fall, despite men’s soccer playing in Cary, women’s soccer playing a mile and half off campus at Finley Fields, and volleyball struggling to a 5-8 record.
But even as fans become more aware of the excellence of UNC field hockey, how the new facility benefits the program remains in the front of Shelton’s mind. Outside of the team building is a tailgating area, with a brand new stainless-steel grill nestled into a rock-walled counter, with eight separate outlets to connect crock-pots to for the post-game tailgate. Tailgating is a big part of the culture in field hockey, and for junior midfielder Ali Rushton, it’s one of the best ways for the team to bond with one another.
“Some people are from other countries, so their family doesn't get to come out, so they get to hang out with other people,” Rushton said. “Most of our team is not from this state, so most people travel eight hours every weekend just to come here. It's nice to just sit down and relax, and not think about field hockey for a little bit.”
When the team does need to think about field hockey, they can step right through the glass doors of the team building, framed by the program’s six national titles on shelfs just inside the door.
To the left is the team’s theatre, with leather seats, a giant flat screen, and a magnetized tactics board, all used to study the opponent and break down tendencies. Past the elevator bookended by the programs stats (22 NCAA FINAL FOURS, 34 US NATIONAL TEAM ATHLETES, 38 FIRST TEAM ALL-AMERICANS) and up the stairs, is the player’s lounge, an expansive room, with sunlight glimmering in from the full-length glass windows that stand opposite walls seeped in the program’s history.
First team All-American player headshots on one wall, team award plaques on the next. A part of the wall dedicated to each individual national title team, another part for the program’s retired numbers. A display of Shelton’s six championship rings under glass, while the program’s latest ACC title sits in the open air on a ledge barely a foot off the ground, a signed field hockey ball in the center, almost forgotten compared to the regalia of the NCAA trophies in the facility.
And finally, the locker room itself. Personalized cubbies with slick, shiny name plates vertically up each locker, checkerboard grey carpet fading into the ground, shoes drying on the electric rack right by the door, while a big interlocked NC logo looms over the center of room, white lights glistening from the ceiling above.
“The lights around it can change colors,” Ragusa said with a smile. “You can connect it to music and it syncs up. It’s pretty cool.”
It’s a facility worthy of a program that’s been to eight of the last nine Final Fours, and is looking on track to make a run for nine out of ten this year.
“We're much more visible here,” Shelton said. “You see students stopping by, and they’re stopping and looking… For a lot of different reasons, it's a great addition to campus.”
Back outside, the parents of the team finished packing up the chairs from the tailgate, as the players went to go study for their looming midterms. Assistant coach Grant Fulton and his wife, Meghan, played baseball with their son and daughter in front of one of the goals on the turf.
Behind Shelton Stadium, beside the black signs attached to the back of the stands letting students know what years their field hockey team won national and ACC titles, more students walked north along the brick path. Others walked south.
It was a normal day in Chapel Hill.