UNC field hockey completes dream ending, wins NCAA title in Erin Matson’s first season as coach

Robert Willett/rwillett@newsobserver.com
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Before her final season at North Carolina, Erin Matson, already the most decorated athlete in school history, met with Bubba Cunningham, the university’s athletics director. Matson, then a four-time ACC field hockey player of the year, came with a bold request.

If the UNC field hockey head coaching position came open, she told Cunningham, she wanted him to consider her to succeed Karen Shelton, who’d built the greatest dynasty in the history of the sport. Cunningham did not necessarily dismiss the thought but he didn’t embrace it, either.

Here was Matson, then 22-years-old, trying to sell Cunningham on a radical idea. His response:

“Go win a national championship. And then we’ll talk.”

How about two national championships? One more as a player and, now, Matson’s first as head coach?

A year after she scored her final college goal with 79 seconds remaining in the 2022 NCAA title game to give the Tar Heels their 10th national championship, Matson on Sunday completed the dream ending to the greatest experiment — and perhaps the best story — in college athletics.

That experiment: What happens when the best field hockey player in the country, and the most decorated athlete in UNC’s storied athletics history, becomes the head coach of her old team, and the youngest head coach of any Division I sport in the country? And the answer, at least in this case: more championships happen, that’s what.

The Tar Heels’ overtime victory on Sunday, decided in a penalty shootout after the teams ended regulation and two overtimes tied at 1, came, perhaps fittingly, against Northwestern — the same team that UNC defeated a year ago. Matson then scored the decisive goal in the final minutes. This time, she could only watch while her team took a perilous 1-0 lead early in the third quarter only to surrender it 11 minutes later.

The Tar Heels and Wildcats entered the fourth and final quarter tied at 1, and regulation ended that way, too. UNC’s best chance in the first overtime came on a penalty shot from Ryleigh Heck with a little more than two minutes remaining in the period, but Northwestern goalkeeper Annabel Skubisz deflected the attempt with her stick. In the second overtime, UNC keeper Maddie Kahn delievered a game-saving save of her own, after Northwestern had a chance on a breakaway.

Kahn maneuvered out of the box and slid to make the play. From the other end of the field Matson shouted out, “Maddie! Maddie!” and held two thumbs up high.

After the overtimes ended, UNC and Northwestern moved into the decisive penalty shootout. The Tar Heels and Wildcats both scored twice, out of five attempts, in the first round of the shootout. Kahn stopped the Wildcats’ sixth attempt and then Ryleigh Heck scored the game-winner in the sixth round of the shootout. That was the difference. The moment Heck’s shot found the back of the net ignited an emotional celebration, with her teammates rushing to mob her.

It was the kind of moment Matson, now 23, had often delivered as a player. Now her team had delivered it for her, in her first season as head coach.

When Matson got the head coaching job, Shelton, her mentor and old coach, offered a reminder that UNC was hosting nationals this season at the stadium named in Shelton’s honor. Matson’s response: “Bring it on.” Spectators lined up outside the stadium more than an hour before the start of the national championship match. Tickets sold out easily, and a standing-room only crowd greeted the Tar Heels and Wildcats when they began play, with the hill and grass surrounding the stadium full of people.

During a match that lasted more than two hours, nobody left. UNC fans remained on their feet throughout overtime.

Finally, it came. What has been arguably the best story in college sports had its storybook ending.