In arguably the North Carolina field hockey team’s most important game of the season thus far, senior forward Erin Matson led the way for the Tar Heels, helping send them to the ACC Championship finals.
The two-time reigning NFHCA National Player of the Year, Matson proved her dominance on Friday. In an underdog matchup against Syracuse, the No. 3 Tar Heels defeated the No. 2 Orange, 4-1, on their home field Friday.
The Orange, who had a 12-4 regular season record, beat North Carolina 5-0 on Oct. 1.
“We just wanted to shove it right back in their face,” said Matson. “So we came out strong.”
And no one came out stronger than her. After having scored eight goals in the team's past three games — including two in an overtime win against Wake Forest in the quarterfinals — Matson scored three goals against Syracuse, all of which were in the second quarter.
Hannah Griggs, who recorded an assist and a goal during the game, emphasized how Matson has been an integral part of the team, citing the significance of her absence due to injury in the regular season.
“I think it was pretty obvious when she stepped away for a few weeks, there was a lot of us that felt we needed to step up,” Griggs said. “And we did that, and it was difficult. It was obviously great having her back and we all said that we wanted to try and build on that and not just have her take over again.”
The regular season loss to Syracuse helped them build, and in this rematch with higher stakes, the team reorganized as a unit.
“I think tonight's game was a huge step for us as a team,” said Griggs. “I think that was probably the best game we played as a team in a very long time.”
Associate head coach Grant Fulton had nothing but praise for Matson’s performance against Syracuse.
“Erin is phenomenal,” said Fulton. “She is a tough, fierce competitor. She is a leader by example. She's a great vocal leader as well.”
Fulton coached the full game for the Tar Heels in the absence of Karen Shelton, who was serving an ejection from the end of the Wake Forest game. While Fulton has been head coach for North Carolina four times, this was his first in the postseason.
“We missed her immensely,” Fulton said. “We don't want her not on the bench. So we just had to take care of business, you know, try and do the job at hand to the best of our ability.”
And the team did just that, shining in Shelton's absence.
“While it's a group effort, the girls motivate themselves and then one another,” Fulton said. “From the coaching staff, we try and have an aggressive front foot mentality. So when we're at our best, we're playing aggressive. We're going to the ball. We're stepping in front, and we're creating opportunities.”
Those opportunities helped lead North Carolina to the ACC Championship, where they will play the fifth-seeded Virginia.
But as they prepare for the Cavaliers, Tar Heel faithfuls can appreciate the work the program put in to upset the Orange.
“We just try to put that message upfront, and it's all words until it becomes actions, and so the actions followed the words," Fulton said. "It was exciting.”
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