Erin Matson coached UNC wins 2-1 in shootout for women's field hockey national title

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Monday, November 20, 2023
Former UNC field hockey star starts new era as NCAA's youngest coach
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When Erin Matson was named head coach of North Carolina's powerhouse field hockey team in late January, it sent shockwaves through the collegiate world.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) (WTVD) -- The most decorated college athlete in the history of the University of North Carolina added to her legacy Sunday winning a national title during her first year as head coach.

Erin Matson is just 23 years old, but she's already making an argument for herself belonging on the Mount Rushmore of UNC athletics.

She won a national title four out of her five years as a player; she won an ACC title all five years; she was named national player of the year three times. Then, as soon as her playing time was over, she was named as the successor to the winningest coach in field hockey history: Karen Shelton.

Now, with her at the helm, UNC has not missed a beat. Matson has led her former teammates to an ACC title and the school's fifth national title in six years.

UNC won its latest title against Northwestern, which was particularly poignant for Matson, whose only loss in the NCAA tournament came at the hands of Northwestern in 2021.

SEE ALSO | Former UNC field hockey star starts new era as NCAA's youngest coach

When Erin Matson was named head coach of North Carolina's powerhouse field hockey team in late January, it sent shockwaves through the collegiate world.

Moving from centerfield to the sidelines

Matson's sudden move from star player to coach became a national story from the moment she was named successor to retired 10-time NCAA champion Karen Shelton, a hiring coming a month after her graduation. That meant added attention and pressure for one of the sport's top programs, felt by Matson down to her staff and players.

Along the way, she's experienced the learning curve of a first-time coach.

There's being on the other side of recruiting pitches with prospects and parents. Managing a program budget. Setting practice schedules. Even disciplining players, some of whom returned from last year's perfect season when she was co-captain.

"She's had so much attention, attention's not going to bother her," said UNC football coach Mack Brown, a College Football Hall of Famer who gave a pregame talk to Matson's team before their NCAA opener. "She's so competitive and so tough. She's not going to worry about whether somebody thinks a 23-year-old is old enough to do this or not, whether she was ready for the playoffs.

"None of that matters to her. She's into winning."

She immediately impressed Brown when she called last year to meet and pick his brain with thorough and detailed coaching questions.

"I knew she's the Michael Jordan of women's field hockey but I had never met her and never seen her play," Brown said.

As Matson pursued the job, athletics director Bubba Cunningham admitted it was initially "an idea that you probably do have to sit with for a while to say, 'OK, am I really going to consider this?'"

"There's a maturity level to her personality that gives you a sense of confidence," Cunningham said. "She has a sense of purpose. She's obviously driven and focused. She just is a very thoughtful and very deliberate person that is always prepared."

Along the way, there was outside curiosity about the coaching change, then about how she'd handle the in-season work. Matson shrugged it off.

"There's always going to be people who talk," Matson said. "The day I was hired, there was a guy on Twitter: 'She's not even old enough to rent a car right now.' It's like, 'All right dude, if that's the biggest worry you have, I think we're in a good spot. There is Uber, and I will figure it out because I'm resourceful.

"But it's just all of those people talking. It only motivates everyone, not just me. But these (players) are protective, too. They want to prove they can be part of something special, that hasn't been done before."

One of the more challenging changes was Matson and players having to rewire their relationship, down to Matson opting for a second cellphone so players can contact her officially as their coach.

"I have lived with them, I have gone out with them, I know everything about them," Matson said. "And I felt right when I was hired, they didn't need to be texting me, 'Hey Erin, can we sit down and have a talk in an individual meeting and watch clips?' or 'Hey, what time are we practicing today?' But then scrolling up a little bit and seeing things that were on the friend side.

"I felt that was just part of the natural side of things, to set the boundaries and respect the boundaries."

Sixth-year back Romea Riccardo is one of those former teammates.

"Right away she did a great job of kind of separating herself from us," she said. "We respected her right away. We always respected her as a player. But now obviously it's a little bit different when she's our coach and our person that we kind of look up to as a mom figure."

"Trust me, I have tons to learn, every year is not going to be perfect," Matson said.