Courtnie Williamson shouted words of encouragement to her UNC teammates from the sidelines of the 2018 NCAA field hockey national championship game. She had played just 34 minutes off the bench by the final whistle, a normal occurrence for a player who only started four games that season.
“I definitely contributed more in practice and being loud on the bench,” Williamson said of her national championship performance. “I think my off-the-field contribution during the national championship game was bigger than my on-the-field one.”
One year later, Williamson was a full-time starter for the Tar Heels in her fourth year with the team. Now a graduate student playing in her fifth year of eligibility, her voice as the team captain has become even louder as the team strives for a third consecutive ACC Championship in light of the national championship cancellation due to COVID-19.
Finding her sport
Williamson grew up in Radnor, Pennsylvania, and picked up field hockey late in high school at The Episcopal Academy. She decided to join the WC Eagles club team and immediately fell in love with the sport.
“I love how fast paced the game is,” Williamson said. “I love that it’s a tough girl sport. It’s super physical, and it never really stops.”
From the early stages of her athletic career, Williamson knew she wanted to play in college. She quickly set her sights on North Carolina, attracted to the field hockey dynasty that head coach Karen Shelton built, the Kenan-Flagler Business School and the warm weather down South.
“Coach Shelton and I had a couple of conversations, I came down to visit and absolutely fell in love with UNC and the team,” she said.
Coming into her first year in Chapel Hill in 2016 as a midfielder, Williamson had one goal in mind: to improve. Not fully developed as a player then, she redshirted her first season alongside much of her class, quickly learning the importance of making mistakes, asking questions and bettering each and every skill.
She found her true strength as a player in the defense.
“She didn’t have quite the stick skills to play in the midfield,” Shelton said. “I just thought she would have the opportunity to play sooner if she switched to defense.”
As a defender, Williamson grew more confident in her abilities. Throughout her sophomore season, she learned to use her speed and athleticism to her advantage, rather than trying to be the most skilled player on the field.
“Obviously, putting on a Carolina jersey you feel like you have a legacy to uphold and a team to represent," she said. "(My sophomore season) was a very important year for the rest of my career here to learn that it’s never going to be perfect."
Off the field, Williamson excelled academically as an undergraduate in the business school. Taking on a challenging course load while playing a demanding varsity sport, she found it tough at times to balance the two.
Though difficult, it was also very rewarding, she said. Williamson is now pursuing her graduate degree in business at Kenan-Flagler as well.
“It really goes to show how sports can positively impact your life off the field as well,” she said.
A natural leader
Now a graduate student, her schedule looks entirely different than it did as an undergraduate. She brings a unique perspective to the team because of her newfound flexibility. The group recently elected her as team captain, investing their trust in her leadership skills.
Senior Eva Smolenaars said Williamson was a perfect fit as the leader of the Tar Heels.
“After knowing Courtnie for four years, she is a very strong, independent woman,” Smolenaars said. “The way she talks is one of her greatest strengths. She speaks with such confidence.”
Her guidance and positivity are traits the team crucially needs as they forge ahead with their season during the pandemic. The team’s shared struggles have taken a mental and physical toll on the players.
“Right now, we’re still a bit disjointed,” Shelton said.
Some of the challenges the team is working through are the fact that players don't see each other as often, they're preoccupied with a full load of online classes and they have to split into groups for meetings on Zoom after games.
Williamson has played a significant role in ensuring the players continue to build connections with one another during this time. The captain and vice captains have arranged creative team bonding activities to pull the team together while social distancing.
Another leadership role she has taken on this season is facilitating conversations about racial injustice. With field hockey being a predominantly white sport, Williamson’s goal is to use her platform to educate the team on these inequalities.
“It’s important to remember how those off-the-field conversations can positively impact us as a family,” she said.
Shelton credited a share of the field hockey program’s success over the past few years to Williamson’s talent, drive and leadership. As the Tar Heels head into the rest of their 2020 season, her defensive skills combined with her efforts as team captain will be pivotal in helping the team navigate a difficult road ahead.
The full impact of Williamson’s years at UNC is still developing, but Shelton is eager to see how it will unfold.
“Her legacy is still being written right now,” Shelton said.
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