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The Daily Tar Heel

'Pretty darn special': In Chapel Hill, UNC field hockey wins third-straight NCAA title

UNC field hockey won their third consecutive national championship on Sunday, May 9 in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels triumphed over the Michigan Wolverines 4-3.

In 2018, they won Mary, named after Maryland. In 2019, they won Prince, after Princeton. And in 2020, they won Michelle.

After a 4-3 overtime win over Michigan in the 2020 NCAA Championship game on Sunday, North Carolina field hockey won the chance to name yet another trophy.

Michelle was won after what UNC head coach Karen Shelton said was the toughest game the team has faced in a long time. UNC almost doubled Michigan’s scoring output throughout the fall and spring seasons, 61 to 35. But previous production doesn't matter when facing a defense that had only allowed nine goals throughout the season. 

“I knew it was gonna be our offense against their defense, and it sure came down to a game of inches, as it always is,” Shelton said.

With two shutouts against Stanford and Iowa, North Carolina’s defense was startled as Michigan slid in the first goal UNC has allowed throughout the tournament… early in the first.

The Tar Heels were quick to answer on a penalty corner opportunity, with junior forward Erin Matson smashing it past Michigan’s goalkeeper to tie the score.

Senior forward Bryn Boylan snuck in UNC’s second goal of the evening off a penalty stroke early in the second quarter, hitting it with just enough force to roll through the far right side of the net.

In the third, Matson took a shot at Michigan’s goal and first-year Mia Leonhardt clipped it in for another unanswered goal. Though UNC led 3-1 with a quarter and a half left, Michigan’s pressure did not let up.

The Wolverines capitalized on the time they had left and scored back-to-back goals at the tail end of the third. These scores made Sunday's contest the first in NCAA championship game history where both teams scored at least three goals.

After a fast-paced third period, the fourth was brutal. 

Lost sticks, green card cautions and possession in limbo summed up the physical battle, with both teams rushing to put pressure on the other to prevent the creation of a play.

“We played a game that was a little bit uncharacteristic for us,” Shelton said. “We had to relieve pressure a lot, and we do that by whacking it to the other end, so it’s not the prettiest of games.”

With no scoring in the fourth, the National Championship went into sudden-death overtime for the ninth time in its history. 

The Tar Heels had lost all of their past five NCAA games that reached overtime, but this year was different. Going 6-0 past regulation on the season, Shelton said she was confident going into the overtime period.

Playing its methodic game, North Carolina kept the ball in its possession for the majority of the period, then was awarded back-to-back corners in the 67th minute.

The second, inserted from Eva Smolenaars to Matson, was dribbled around a defender and backhanded straight through the goalkeeper’s legs to the center of the cage.

A Tar Heel victory.

“(UNC assistant coach Robbert Schenk) made the joke that we never practice going on my reverse, but I did it,” Matson said. “I knew to keep it flat and it just worked.”

Then, Matson was flooded by her teammates in an enormous dogpile in the middle of the field. 

Senior Mimi Leonard came rushing in behind her teammates with Michelle in hand — Leonard held Michelle up high, and the Tar Heels collectively pushed her further toward the stadium lights.

“Every single time I come out and I’m just like ‘there’s no way,’ and it happens again,” senior goalkeeper Amanda Hendry said. “I still can’t believe we won the first one, let alone this one.”

Michelle is not just a trophy; she is a token of victory for the season of adversity that UNC field hockey has faced. This year, the Tar Heels played an exclusively ACC schedule, for the first time, in both fall and spring. 

After playing for sparse crowds for a year, UNC saw fans lined from sideline to sideline.

Not only was Michelle won in an unusual year, further solidifying the program as one of the nation's best, but the trophies — Mary, Prince, Michelle — represent a new dynasty for UNC field hockey.

And this new dynasty was coronated in Karen Shelton Stadium.

“It’s very special for us to represent the University of North Carolina, but to win a National Championship on our own field was something that is pretty darn special,” Shelton said.

@DTHSports |