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Erin Matson, 22, goes straight from field hockey GOAT to UNC coach

Erin Matson scored a goal against Chile at the 2019 Pan American Games. (Silvia Izquierdo/AP)
3 min

Twenty-two-year-olds aren’t ordinarily hired straight out of college as head coaches for top-tier university athletic programs.

In the world of college field hockey, however, there is nothing ordinary about Erin Matson. Arguably the greatest of all time in her sport — and indisputably one of the most accomplished athletes ever to compete for North Carolina, as well as in the ACC — Matson will now look to impart her expertise to others as the Tar Heels’ coach.

“Erin is an outstanding leader who has a deep and thorough knowledge of the game, understands the balance it takes to be a successful student and athlete, and is determined to expand and propel the winning tradition of Carolina Field Hockey,” UNC Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham said in a statement Tuesday.

Matson replaces another legendary figure in the sport, former Tar Heels coach Karen Shelton, less than three months after ending her playing career on a suitably high note. In November, Matson scored the winning goal to help UNC score a 2-1 win over Northwestern in the NCAA championship game. That earned Matson — who took advantage of an NCAA rule that gave many pandemic-era athletes a fifth year of eligibility — a fourth national title and a third with an undefeated season.

She also garnered her third national player of the year award from the National Field Hockey Coaches Association and a fifth ACC player of the year award, an unprecedented feat for any conference athlete.

Now Matson will take on a different challenge in maintaining the success reached by the Tar Heels under the 65-year-old Shelton, who retired in December after becoming the winningest coach in the history of college field hockey. Over 42 seasons at UNC, Shelton notched a record of 745-172-9 while setting other marks with 10 NCAA championships and 77 victories in 39 NCAA tournament appearances.

A 12-time ACC coach of the year and, before that, a standout player in her own right, Shelton began coaching the Tar Heels in 1981 at 23.

Matson, who was born in 2000, has thus already followed in Shelton’s footsteps in one notable way. Further emulating her mentor will take decades of triumphs.

“To say I’m excited and honored to be the head coach of the UNC field hockey program is an understatement — this is a dream come true,” Matson said Tuesday in a statement. “This program means the world to me, and I will do whatever it takes to continue the excellence that is UNC Field Hockey. … I intend to honor the University of North Carolina, Coach Shelton, and the program’s history while working to find ways to achieve new heights, side-by-side with our Carolina community.”

A member of the U.S. national team since she was 17, Matson was the top scorer at last year’s Pan American Cup, staged in Chile. It is unclear to what degree her coaching duties might interfere, if at all, with her international playing career.