North Carolina field hockey has been in the national winner’s circle for three years in a row.
Throughout their 2018, 2019 and 2020 seasons, the team had only one loss, remained undefeated at home and came out on top in nine overtime contests.
In 2021 though, there have been some ups and downs. The team posted six losses in the regular season, including two defeats at home and even fell in an overtime battle.
No longer the No. 1 team in the nation, UNC has adopted a new mentality for its campaign — being the underdog.
“This year, we've had more downs than ups,” head coach Karen Shelton said. “The last three years, we had incredible ups the whole time, so this year has been a little bit different.”
As the self-classified dark horse this year, UNC has beaten all odds in the ACC Tournament. The Tar Heels collected an overtime win against Wake Forest, upset Syracuse in the Orange's home stadium and locked down defensively in a 1-0 battle against Virginia on Sunday to notch the program's fifth consecutive ACC tournament title.
One of the major factors that set this season apart is UNC’s inexperience in the defensive third. The Tar Heels gave up an average of 22 goals per season in their 2018, 2019 and 2020 campaigns, but have already given up 34 this year.
UNC also averaged over eight shutouts per season over the past three years, and the 2021 ACC Championship game only marked North Carolina’s third scoreless defensive performance of the season. Blanking the Cavaliers was a huge step in the right direction for UNC’s first-year goalkeeper, Abigail Taylor.
“The first minute of the game, they came down and got a breakaway and she made a spectacular save," Shelton said. "Being a freshman goalie for us is not easy, and she stepped up this weekend.”
Senior forward Erin Matson has played with a fair share of talented players during her time in Chapel Hill, but even she couldn't quite put a finger on what makes her first-year teammate so special.
“I don't know what she keeps eating for breakfast, but I need a menu,” Matson said.
Over the last three seasons, Virginia has inched closer to notching the Tar Heels, but still to no avail. After UNC notched two shutout wins in 2018 and 2019, the Cavaliers got points on the board in all three of their matchups last season and gave UNC a run for its money in an overtime game last week.
Sunday’s contest was Virginia’s eighth appearance in the tournament championship as the team fought to gain its second title in program history — while UNC was playing for its 24th.
The gritty battle kept the Tar Heels fighting until the buzzer sounded, even after Matson put UNC up a point in the third period off a penalty corner that would give the team the lead for good.
“The celebration was fun, but we treated it like it was 0-0,” Matson said. “We knew they were coming out firing and they still had a lot of energy.”
Matson has yet again proven to be the key asset for the team, scoring six of the team’s eight goals in the ACC tournament. She was named ACC Tournament MVP for the second year in a row, as well as the ACC Offensive Player of the Year for her fourth consecutive year, becoming only the second field hockey player to accomplish that feat.
Securing the ACC title restored a bit of normality for the reigning three-time national champions, but the road to a fourth national championship will certainly not be easy, especially without UNC being ranked in the top five.
The Tar Heels will play Northwestern (14-5) in the first round of the tournament and will face either Iowa or American University if the team advances to the quarterfinals.
North Carolina’s conference title was won with an underdog mentality, and in order to beat the teams that have wreaked havoc on UNC’s dynasty, the Tar Heels might just have to maintain that same mindset in tournament play.
“Everybody loves redemption. We weren't expected to win, so we had nothing to lose,” Shelton said. “We know that we've been a little bit battle-tested, but we’ve got a ways to go so we're excited about it and we’re still alive.”
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