CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Erin Matson walks off the pitch and heads inside, through the high-reaching glass double-doors that open up to the barely-broken-in women’s field hockey center, an extension of the newly-dubbed and newly-constructed Karen Shelton Stadium. Shelton, the 38-year head coach of a dynastic field hockey program at UNC, just called the close of a late-afternoon practice that saw the first rays of springtime heat beat down on the 20-something players and that saw a barrage of inaccurate shots and passes beat off of pads and sticks in what was an exhaustively unspectacular day.
Matson briefly passes through the main lobby — past the main stairway that leads upstairs to a Carolina blue shrine commemorating the past players and teams of UNC lore, with photos of former national players of the year, retired jerseys and gaudy championship trophies posing as typical wall decor — and disappears into the team locker room.
She reappears and heads into the video room and plops down into a small rolling chair, front-and-center, with a sea of student journalists scattered throughout the 35-plus cushioned seats. Tired and sweaty, she scans the crowd, knowing that they’re clamoring for answers from the team’s young star, a 19-year-old freshman who just led the team in scoring and led the program to its first national title since 2009.
She’s used to the media attention by now — the hype warrants it.
“I hope to take in all that Carolina has to offer and do everything in my power to represent my school in the best way possible,” Matson said in an email regarding her goals as a UNC student-athlete. “Stepping out on that field wearing Carolina across my chest is not something I take lightly because I know it is an honor.”
If she wanted to fully represent what it meant to be a Tar Heel, well, she sure found the best way to do it.
Twenty goals, 19 assists and 59 points are not statistical marvels that a player just stumbles into, nor are they season totals that are expected of a 5-foot-4 freshman forward on one of the nation’s premier field hockey teams.
Collegiate tradition says that freshmen, no matter the sport or league, are to bide their time, slowly picking up the do’s and don’ts and X’s and O’s that constitute a winning playstyle, moving along slowly without the pressures attached to being an upperclassman. Typically, freshmen don’t walk onto campus and contribute significantly right away — it’s just not the norm.
No one told that to Erin Matson, though. Hell, if someone did, she didn’t listen.
An instant contributor, Matson walked onto the Carolina pitch as one of the nation’s most promising young players, heralded for her spark-plug do-it-all offensive attack, polished defensive instincts and advanced understanding of the game, all of which far surpassed most of her peers. Vocal and fearless, she pushes the limits every single time she laces up her cleats, using her aggression, speed, and burgeoning skill set to abuse opposing defenders standing between her and the goal.
“She’s had the ability to grow into her body to mature intellectually, from a field hockey IQ point of view. She’s really smart, she’s really fast, physically strong, and technically outstanding,” Shelton said, racking her brain for as many positive descriptors — all true — that she could possibly list off to describe her freshman star. “She’s got it all.”
Matson put her tools on display on one such occasion against Wake Forest in the ACC Final, a play that many people — be it members of the team, media, or fan base — nod to as her signature moment that highlights her freshman campaign.
Operating as the injector, Matson fired off a pass to senior midfielder Eva Van’t Hoog, who skipped it past a shot-faking Ashley Hoffman and into the waiting stick of Malin Evert, who quickly redirected the ball to a now in-bounds Matson. The problem? The pass was wide-left, catching Matson at an awkward angle.
No bother. Poised and aware of her surroundings, Matson smoothly readjusted her stick and sent a backhanded prayer toward the net, not turning around to follow the shot until it sailed smoothly past the distraught glove of a helpless goalie.
“Oh my,” Shelton recalls thinking upon seeing the play unfold. “Are you kidding me?”
A no-look, back-handed goal in the ACC Championship game is a hell of a play, to be sure. A highlight play earning its own airtime among nine other plays on ESPN’s Sportscenter Top 10, a feat Matson later learned of through excited text messages from her father. But, as nice of a play as it was, it was just another usual set for UNC’s star freshman whose season was filled with game-by-game material worthy of oohs and awes.
Matson is really, really good: of course she netted a spectacular goal. She makes the incredible seem routine. Never too high nor too low, she lets the media attention and hype wash over her without affecting her on-field performance.
That goal was merely one of many, after all — 20, to be exact, an amount that helped Matson accrue the second-most points (59) scored that season, a mark that goes down as the fourth-most points scored by a Tar Heel in a single season (behind Kathy Staley, 60, and Cindy Werley, 61 and 87). As a freshman, she managed to get her name recognized at the collegiate
level both nationally and locally, receiving accolades — ACC Freshman of the Year, ACC Offensive Player of the Year, First-team All-America, etc. — that immediately cemented her status in the Carolina history books as one of the best freshman to ever don a baby blue penny.
The daughter of two former college athletes, Erin Matson was introduced to competitive sports as a young age, with the two diligently working to mold their daughter into a humble, respectful, responsible person who could excel both as a player on the field and as a person off of it.
“They kept me level-headed,” Matson said of her mild-mannered parents. “They never would really boost me up or anything or make me seem like this god, because they found no reason and no help in doing that.”
Following the footsteps of her mother, Jill Matson, who played a single season of field hockey as a goalie for Yale, Erin played her first competitive field hockey games as a 6-year-old at the club level near her childhood home in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. As a member of the WC Eagles Field Hockey Club, Matson quickly improved through her early years, with a teammate’s father extending an invite for a certain college coach to come watch a game, a random act that would alter the course of Matson’s playing career drastically.
“My brother and his wife live up in Pennsylvania and they have a daughter named Laura that plays field hockey … on the WC Eagles Club team,” Karen Shelton recalls. “I go visit my brother and we went to see Laura play [and] my brother’s like saying, ‘You’ve got to see this other kid.’”
Luckily for Matson, she was teammates with the niece of a successful D-I field hockey coach; and, luckily for Shelton, she had a niece that just so happened to be on the same team as an extremely talented grade school-aged Matson.
Interest between the two was mutual, with Matson and Shelton forming a close relationship over years of games, camp invites and conversations. As a middle-schooler, Matson would attend a highly-touted camp at UNC, one billed for high school students and elite prospects. The label didn’t scare her, nor did it prevent Shelton from giving her a pass to attend and therefore compete against girls who were much older and much larger than she was. No bother.
“I always loved a challenge, so when I was put with older girls, I loved being challenged to have more speed in the game and know where I’m gonna pass the ball next,” Matson said of her experiences playing above her age group. “And obviously that just comes with playing with older girls and more experience playing … I guess I was always kinda just pushed with older players.”
When Matson says “always,” she’s not downplaying her feelings — she really accepts that challenge, more so than just competing against players of higher grade levels throughout middle and high school. No, she thought two quick seasons at Unionville High School were enough for
her, seeing other leagues as better challenges for her. From high school, she jumped into a competitive indoor club league; from there, onto the U.S. U19 and U21 teams, competing for something bigger than school pride. At the age of 16 she received an invitation to compete on the U.S. Women’s National Team, serving as the youngest player on a team that fielded players as old as 30.
Age wasn’t something she cared for, age wasn’t something that mattered out on the pitch, not for Matson, anyway.
So how does someone this young get this good at field hockey when so many of her peers are far behind her in skill level?
According to Matson, a number of things. An equal dose of confidence and humility, for one.
“I really, genuinely believe that you cannot become great [without humility],” she said. “I mean, you have to have a certain level of confidence … but there’s a limit. I think knowing that you’re still one player on that whole field with a ton of other girls is a big part of it.”
Another crucial aspect playing into her rise to field hockey stardom is her unending dedication and love for the sport, a love that she realized back in high school that ultimately propelled her to sacrifice her time and energy throughout the years so that she could reach lofty goals.
“When I was younger I loved to just play. And then I realized, ‘Oh, I can make the national team, I can be an Olympian, I can do these things,’” Matson said. “So then, that’s where, oh, it’s time to get serious, it’s time to put in the extra work at night, stay up late, do workouts, all that stuff.”
Fueled by her own internal desire to be great, as well as the guidance of her parents and coaches, Matson would work tirelessly — spending countless hours practicing, lifting, preparing, learning, and somehow squeezing an academic career into it all — to reach each individual stepping stone, pridefully accepting each new challenge and looking ahead to the future.
She’s not complacent — she refuses to be. Growth isn’t a desire, it’s a necessity, something she can’t live without. Matson understands that her place among the nation’s best field hockey players, both internationally and at the collegiate level, shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Every minute inside that Carolina blue practice facility leads to introspection, as it’s hard not to look at the names and accomplishments emblazoned along every square inch of the building. The women that came before her, the women that coach Shelton believes Erin could emulate and perhaps surpass one day (Kelsey Kolojejchick, Leslie Lyness, Rachel Dawson, Katelyn Falgowski, Cindy Werley), are figures that Matson can’t help but pay attention to.
“They are the women that paved the way for us,” Matson said in an email. “We all aspire to be up on those walls someday next to those amazing players.”
But, humble and modest as ever, Matson says that it’s not something she’s focusing on too much these days.
“I definitely would be honored to have my jersey recognized some day, but for now, my focus is just on playing how I play and bettering my skills,” she said. “None of that other stuff matters once I step on the field and the whistle blows.”
As long as Erin Matson is still out on that pitch winning with a Carolina blue penny on, you won’t hear many complaints from Karen Shelton, nor will you see the veteran coach retire anytime soon.
“[Prior to the season] I was going to retire, and one of my colleagues said to me, ‘Why would you retire when you have Erin Matson on your team?’” Shelton recalls lightheartedly. “I’m like, ‘You’re right.’”
(This feature story is from a class assignment at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Media & Journalism from March/April of 2019.)