No one is quite sure when the fire started, or how it began, exactly. The only thing that’s certain is that it’s there. Maybe it always has been.
It was there, innocently enough, when a six-year-old girl first picked up a field hockey stick, deciding immediately — or maybe it was decided for her — that she was in love. It’s been there ever since, when she was a sixteen-year-old representing the United States and then an eighteen-year-old on the best team in the country. It’s a fire that has vanquished enemies, ignited teammates and burned names into trophies. It’s a fire that has yet to be extinguished, even by tears of joy after not one, but two national championships.
It would be entirely cliche to describe most athletes in these terms, but Erin Matson is the exception, the reason tropes like this exist. And when it’s all said and done, and the smoke has cleared, it feels entirely possible that the fire will have put Matson in the rarest of company: the greatest of all time.
Brian Matson knew his daughter had a gift when, during an indoor tournament, seven-year-old Erin scooped up a loose ball, dribbled end-to-end and flicked in a reverse for a score. Whoa, he remembers thinking, that kind of looked intentional.
“As a parent, you watch her and you think ‘Okay, she’s pretty good,’” mother Jill Matson said. “But then when you start having other people — coaches, parents, officials — come up and say, ‘That’s not normal at that age,’ you realize you might have something special.”
Sure, part of that divide was due to raw talent. But mostly it was countless hours spent in the Matson basement, running through drill after drill, pull after pull, stroke after stroke. Years later, Erin would get in trouble with coaches for stopping drills midway through and starting over from the beginning: if it could be done better, she figured, it should be.
“It was like a habit of mine,” she said. “If it wasn’t perfect, I had to redo it.”
Karen Shelton first saw Erin play as a fourth-grader, dominating the older competition in a club game. The UNC head coach immediately knew she had seen something “really special,” one of those once-in-a-generation blends of talent, skill and passion. Your daughter’s pretty good, Brian remembers Shelton saying. I’m going to keep an eye on her.
Years later, after a recruiting process described as "not hard," Matson would end up in Chapel Hill.
Courtnie Williamson is asked to pick out the moment when she first knew Erin Matson was as good as advertised. She can't do it. Pretty much every single time she took a shot, Williamson says, she was astonished.
“The first time I saw her play, it was like, ‘Wow, we’re going to be good this year,’” she said. “I knew right away.”
Matson played for the U.S. National Team at age 16, only the second person in history to do so, and was a top recruit for the WC Eagles, one of the best field hockey clubs in the country. Then add in the fact that North Carolina was a preseason ACC favorite. High expectations — individually and as a team — were a given.
So the rookie forward wasted no time, posting six goals and six assists in her first seven games. After that came games against eleventh-ranked Syracuse, fifth-ranked UConn and fourth-ranked Duke (twice) — all UNC wins.
When Matson says she never gets nervous before games, you believe her. North Carolina entered the ACC Championship with an 18-0 record and a lot to lose, and it was precisely then that Shelton saw what she considers the signature moment of Matson’s first season: a spinning, behind-the-back goal out of a set piece, 62 seconds into a game against Wake Forest.
“It was something you just don’t see at the college level,” Shelton said. “You just see it and shake your head.”
That set the tone, all right. The Tar Heels never looked back and won, 7-2, then beat Maryland two weeks later for the national title. Matson scored the clincher in a 2-0 win, ending a 23-0 season.
As a first-year, Matson led North Carolina in goals (20) and assists (19), and was a first-team All-American. It felt both unlikely and inevitable that she would follow that up with something better.
In 2019, Matson led the nation in points per game, finishing with 33 goals and 15 assists. She repeated as the ACC Offensive Player of the Year and also won National Player of the Year. Best of all, her team again had a shot at a national championship — and something even greater.
In their third game of the year, the top-ranked Tar Heels played No. 5 Princeton. The Tigers threw the first punch, then the second, UNC’s vaunted offense stalling all the while. By the time halftime came around, Princeton held a 3-1 lead in Chapel Hill, putting their hard-earned win streak in jeopardy. With just minutes left the score was the same, any hopes of another perfect season seemingly dashed early.
Matson’s memory of what happened next is hazy. She says she isn’t quite sure how the last three hundred and one seconds played out. What she knows is that when it was over, she and her teammates were screaming and hugging and the streak had, improbably, been kept alive.
Matson started the rally with a score at the 54:59 mark, lasered in from the left side of the circle. Moments later she drew a penalty stroke, which Megan DuVernois capitalized on. They scored two goals in less than 80 seconds to tie the game, and held every shred of momentum heading into overtime.
Except the Tar Heels didn’t need overtime once Matson spotted Marissa Creatore and sent the ball toward the cage with less than 30 seconds left. Goal. UNC 4, Princeton 3, and a 25-game winning streak improbably extended to 26.
“I don’t even know how we did that,” she said. “I really don’t. We watched film of the last five minutes, and we were like, ‘That’s never possible again.’”
They would see Princeton again, in the national championship with (somehow) even more at stake. The Tigers scored early to open things up, but another last-minute rally wouldn’t be necessary. North Carolina ripped off six straight scores, two from Matson, in a five-goal blowout.
A national championship. A dream season. A perfect season. Again.
Erin Matson is 20 years old and has been compared to Beethoven. A national team coach called her “the American dream,” and there are obvious parallels to reigning field hockey GOAT Luciana Aymar. With half of her college career still to come, Matson’s already in an exclusive club of UNC greats, alongside the likes of Mia Hamm and Lawrence Taylor. But only one name comes up without fail when people try to put Matson’s greatness into context.
Yeah, that one.
“I tell her all the time she’s the Michael Jordan of field hockey,” Williamson said.
Parents, teammates and coaches all see shades of Jordan in the 5-foot-4 Matson. There is (of course) the North Carolina connection. Add in how neither can remember the details from the biggest games of their careers, a seeming testament to how they’re so dialed in at any given moment. There’s a focus, a bordering obsession, on fundamentals. Most of all there’s an intensity, a single-mindedness and a desire — maybe even a need — to win at anything and everything.
In Erin Matson the person, family and friends see a “girly girl,” sweet, down-to-earth, and humble almost to a fault. In Erin Matson the field hockey player, they see someone who will “rip your heart out,” call teammates out when they’re out of line and go to any lengths in order to win.
“She steps on the field and she’s a different person,” Williamson says. “But that’s how you have to be to be as great as she is.”
She, like MJ, learned to take every infinitesimal slight personally. Because her club team was so dominant, Matson would turn any minor slip-up — a missed shot here, a defensive misstep there — into rocket fuel.
“It was the littlest things,” she remembered. “If someone stole a ball from me, someone on another team that wasn’t nearly as good as our team, that pissed me off.”
In one game last year, her father remembers an unnamed opponent was — for some inconceivable reason — jawing at Erin during a blowout. With less than a minute left and UNC up four, Erin, no intentions of slowing up, dribbled downfield and put one past the goalkeeper.
“There was a concerted effort, with such little time, to get down there and score,” Brian remembered. “Almost like it was a game-winning goal.”
A Jordan-esque parting gift.
And so the fire rages on for Erin Matson, until there are no more drills to run through or obstacles to overcome or opponents to shut up.
It will be there next season and the one after that, when she looks to continue a literally perfect college career. It’ll be there while she chases Olympic gold and looks to inspire the next generation of field hockey players.
It’ll be there in every practice and every game, evident to any coach who is lucky enough to have her and any teammate who has sense enough to notice. People in the stands will be hard-pressed not to see it. They’ll wonder to themselves, Who is that? then How did that happen? and finally, maybe, Where does that come from?
No one knows how the fire started. But they know it’s there.