Graphic by Sean Rogers/The Olaf Messenger
On Nov. 19, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Tar Heels field hockey team won the NCAA Division I national title in front of a home crowd, defeating the Northwestern Wildcats 2-1 in a penalty shootout that followed two scoreless overtime periods. The Tar Heels, who finished the season with an 18-3 record, were led to victory by head coach and program alumna Erin Matson. At 23-years-old and in her first season of coaching, Matson became the youngest collegiate coach to win a national title.
The win marked the Tar Heels’ fifth NCAA tournament clinch in six years, and as a player, Matson led her team to four of these recent titles, including the program’s previous win in 2022. Following a decorated high school career, the Chadds Ford, Pa.-native entered the Tar Heels program in 2018 and went on to play there for five seasons, granted an extra season due to the NCAA’s decision to present all athletes with fifth-year eligibility in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Matson co-captained the team in 2021 and 2022 and served as vice-captain in 2020. During every season as a Tar Heel, she was recognized as the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year and the Atlantic Coast Conference Offensive Player of the Year, and the team went undefeated in three out of five of those seasons. In 2019, 2020, and 2022, Matson — who, quite appropriately, wore jersey number one — was recognized with the Honda Sports Award, presented to the best female collegiate athletes in twelve sports. Joining Matson in the award’s 2022-23 class were other headline-making athletes including North Carolina State University cross-country runner Katelyn Tuohy and University of Virginia swimmer Kate Douglass.
Matson accepted head-coaching duties following the retirement of former Tar Heels frontwoman Karen Shelton, who was also twenty-three years old when she began coaching in 1981. In Shelton’s forty-two years of leadership, the program claimed 10 national titles and twenty-five conference wins. Coincidentally, Shelton is also a three-time recipient of the Honda Sports Award, which she won consecutively in 1976, 1977, and 1978. While Matson has some big shoes to fill, it’s clear that she has already begun to follow in her former coach’s footsteps. “I couldn’t be prouder,” Matson said of her team and their achievement to a UNC sports reporter. “And I’m so happy it was on our home turf.” Over 3,200 fans were reported to be in attendance that day, setting a new program record.