That’s the first thing Michael Shelton says as he leans back onto his office couch and smoothes his tie. This is a rare moment of contemplation for the coach and assistant director of admissions. His phone is always ringing: There’s a new student asking about the team, a basketball player who needs workout advice, an advisee with a schedule question.
Coach Shelton—like so many others at the school—wears many hats. Having just finished coaching one of the most successful winters in Williston Northampton basketball history, he had to transition quickly into the admission and recruitment season that marks the spring.
In his first year at Williston Northampton, Coach Shelton helped recruit 10 strong players. Those students formed the foundation of what would become a powerhouse basketball team—one that would rack up the most wins in school history, earn the #2 seed in the Class A tournament, defeat two-time defending New England champion Exeter Academy, and go on the New England Prep School Championship.
For their outstanding play during the season, three boys garnered postseason recognition on the All New England team; Ryan Richmond ’15 was named the outstanding player of the tournament; and Coach Shelton was named the NEPSAC Class A Coach of the Year.
That the students would come together the way they did was not always a given. In fact, the team had faced defeats—a 59-62 loss to Kimball Union Academy, and a 67-72 loss to Cheshire Academy—as well as the transfer of one of its key players early in the season.
“As coaches, it’s our job to have all of those different personalities and skill sets come together on the court,” Coach Shelton said. “So that’s what my initial goal was from the onset, to try and create a winning culture on and off the court here.”
To create that winning culture, Coach Shelton drilled into his team the four pillars of his coaching philosophy: the collective is stronger than the individual; there is always room to grow; the only way to perfect your craft is to keep patiently hammering away at it; and academic excellence is always a priority.
Coach Shelton honed this philosophy at the college level, where he served as an assistant basketball coach at Winthrop University, an assistant men’s basketball coach at Wesleyan University, and an assistant coach at the University of New Haven. He also played at NCAA Division II Bellarmine University on a full athletic scholarship.
Such a background forged a self-described “really tough coach” with a desire to push students to their limits. Or, in his words, “make them comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
“I hold myself to a higher standard than I hold other people,” he said. “That’s just something that I’ve learned and that’s why I push the kids so hard. I know that greatness is in everyone, and I know that, for a lot of us, we just have never pushed past that boundary.”
For the team, that meant that a win didn’t necessarily lead to a celebration—especially if Coach Shelton felt that the players were not performing at their best. After a particularly lackluster victory against Westminster, Coach Shelton brought the team home in silence, gave them a talk, and had them run a 45-minute practice.
“Nobody wanted to be there. No one wanted to be doing sprints, or defensive slides or whatever the case may be, but we started to see the accountability of each kid to the kid next to them and their teammates, and then spurring them on, ‘We need to get this right,”” he said. “That’s when I was like, ‘Okay, we have it.’ That was the catalyst of us coming together and starting to roll toward the end of the season.”
It’s a message that players such as point guard Ryan Richmond took to heart. Reflecting on the season in April, as he was preparing to commit to Bentley University, Mr. Richmond said he had learned “the value of hard work and sacrifice.”
“Not a lot of people would be willing to do what we did, which is why they weren’t as successful as us,” he said, adding that the “countless workouts, practices and film sessions” had made a difference.
“Sacrifice was also key,” Mr. Richmond added. “As individuals, we had to sacrifice what we were capable of doing for the positive progression of the whole team. It had to be about ‘we’ and not ‘me.’”
Such a process eventually lead to Coach Shelton giving players more control, and ultimately more opportunities for cooperation and leadership.
“There were moments in games after that where I just had to let the guys figure it out on the court,” he said. “Let them talk, communicate, huddle together, come together as a team and try to fix it, rather than me always trying to give them the answer.”
For Coach Shelton, the work of the past season isn’t ultimately about winning a single championship, or even two, or three. It’s about building a long legacy of excellence—on the court and in the classroom.
“Something that I really believe in is: we just do what we do,” he said. “We don’t really change what we do. Because you have to have conviction in what you’re doing.”