By CHRIS LARICK
Not much was expected of the Walsh Cavaliers when they made it to the Women’s NAIA National Championship Tournament in 1997 (Shelly Burns’s junior year) under Coach Karl Smesko.
The Cavaliers hadn’t even won their conference tournament. They scraped into the field as the final at-large selection. And they didn't have a starting player who stood taller than 5-foot-9.
“Our starting team was all guards,” said Shelly Burns, the shooting guard on that squad. “Since we were the lowest-ranked team, we had to play everybody.”
The Cavaliers did play everybody. And they beat everybody, to become national champions.
“That was the most exciting thing ever,” Burns said.
Burns, the former Jefferson standout and 1995 graduate, will be one of 13 to be inducted into the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame on Apr. 2.
She first started playing basketball in the fifth grade in physical education class, stealing the ball every time another schoolmate would try to bring it up.
“The teacher, Jeannette Bartlett, would say, ‘Don't go after the ball 'til they are inside of the three-point line, so they have a chance to dribble it up the floor.”
She spoke to Burns' parents about putting her into camps because she picked up the sport quickly .
Burns said. “Immediately, I decided I wanted to take the game up."
She played on one of Rod Holmes’ early teams, though not his first.
“He definitely built (your skills) in areas you were not quite comfortable in,” Burns said of Holmes. “He made you a better player. He was always willing to open the gym for us.”
Burns was the best player on the Falcon squads of her time, but she got help from players like Jody Springer, Candy Williams, Ryan Rebel, and in her senior year, Kiki McNair.
“I played point guard,” Burns said. “I liked to drive and pull up for an outside shot or drive the middle and dish it. I always liked to shoot three-pointers.”
Like most athletes at Jefferson, Burns took part in more than one sport.
“I was always very athletic,” she said. “I played volleyball when I was a freshman and sophmore, then ran cross country and track, the high jump, long jump and a lot of relays — wherever I could get a lot of points. But I ran cross country and track to make me better in basketball.”
A three-year letter winner at Jefferson, Burns totaled 342 steals, 331 assists and 921 points (360 field goals made). Through 67 games she averaged 13.6 points per contest. An outstanding foul shooter, she converted 78 percent of her attempts over her career and 86 percent her top season. She once connected on 20 straight free throws.
In both her junior and senior seasons (1993-1994 and 1994-1995) Burns was named Star Beacon All-Ashtabula County Player of the Year. She was also Northeastern Conference Player of the Year as a senior. In state voting, she was Honorable Mention her junior year and Special Mention her senior season.
“It came easily to me, but I put a lot of work into it, too,” she said of the game.
After graduation she was heavily recruited by Mount Union and Walsh.
“I visited Walsh and as soon as I walked on to the court with the girls, I felt an instant connection,” she said. "Walsh was an NAIA school, too so they could give you a scholarship for half the tuition. Division III schools (like Mount Union) don’t pay. It was not too far from home, either.”
Burns began at Walsh as a point guard, but was switched to shooting guard as a sophomore.
“The shooting guard got hurt,” she said. “I had a really good ability to read screens and pull up to shoot threes, so I did that the rest of my career.”
Burns, the oldest of Don and Debi’s three children, enjoyed quite a career at Walsh. During her freshman year, running the point, she averaged 4.8 points a game in 30 games, including 17 off the bench in a playoff loss to Shawnee State. Demonstrating again her ability from the foul line, she connected on 16 straight free throws to end the season.
Her sophomore season she led the Cavs in scoring with 380 points, a 13.6 average, scoring 20 points or more in six games and leading the team in scoring 10 times, earning Second Team All-Mid-American Conference honors.
In 1997, she was again a second-teamer on the all-conference team. That year she averaged 12.1 points a game and led the Cavs with 76 three-pointers. She scored in double figures 20 times. In one three-game stretch she scored 78 points (26.0 per contest). She was named tournament MVP in the Express Sports/Papa Bears Tournament and scored 27 in a win over NAIA Division I Power Central State.
Named a tri-captain before her senior season she was red-shirted after three games after undergoing season-ending knee surgery.
Burns is a member of Walsh’s Wall of Fame. In her three-plus seasons, she scored 1,016 points and added 213 steals and 183 assists.
“I blew out my ACL my senior year after three games but came back the next year. I got compartment syndrome. They wanted to do surgery, but I didn’t want it,” she said.
Still, the seven gams she played that season allowed her to reach the 1,000-point mark.
At Walsh, Burns took a degree in biology with the intention of becoming a chiropractor. As soon as she graduated, she started the four years of graduate school it took to become a chiropractor, studying at New York Chiropractic College ad Later at Cleveland Chiropractic College in Los Angeles.
She now owns at a chiropractic clinic in Hendersonville, N.C. In the meantime, she has obtained a franchise in her own CrossFit gym, CrossFit HLV in Hendersonville.
“There are no machines,” she said. “It’s functional fitness, with things like medicine balls and barbells."
Burns spends time with her parents, siblings, nephews and three dogs.
Recently Burns has become involved in Elite Spartan races, a strenuous form of endurance racing with obstacles and penalties. She competes in CrossFit Competitions and runs endurance trail races.
Burns says of Spartan races, “It’s a three-14 -mile course with a lot of obstacles,” she said. “It’s like a triathlon except you stop (after running a while) and do something ridiculous like carry heavy buckets over things or swing from a rope. It takes three to five hours and you’re just dying afterward. I don’t do contact sports now that I’m older. And basketball is a contact sport.