The UNC field hockey team quickly dropped to an 0-2 record last fall after suffering defeats at the hands of Michigan and Iowa in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. This year, with a more extensive exhibition schedule to kick off the fall, North Carolina has more time to iron out the details before facing upcoming rematches with the Wolverines and the Hawkeyes.
On Saturday night, UNC’s dominance and renewed defensive focus were on display in a decisive victory over Duke. The Tar Heels won 4-1 thanks to a hat trick from fifth-year forward Erin Matson and a goal by first-year midfielder and forward Ryleigh Heck.
“I thought we played well as a team,” head coach Karen Shelton said. “We took what we learned from our previous scrimmages and we tried to improve upon it."
Here are three takeaways from the game:
Matson is still a game-changer
When asked about the explosive power UNC displayed as they tacked on three goals to open up the second quarter, Shelton was blunt about the force behind this run.
“Well, we have Erin Matson,” she said.
After several turnovers by both teams to start the game, the four-time ACC Offensive Player of the Year quickly established herself as the centerpiece of North Carolina’s front field.
Matson's goal off of Heck’s assist late in the first quarter put UNC up 1-0, which she followed up with an unassisted goal early in the second quarter. When she wasn’t facilitating the offense, she was a consistent presence by the goal, ready for the chance to tap in an opportune cross from her teammates.
That chance came in the early minutes of the second quarter when junior midfielder and back Katie Dixon fired a pass across the circle and toward the goal.
“She (Dixon) sent an awesome ball across,” Matson said. “We’ve been focusing on getting in those circle spots, having them all covered throughout the preseason and obviously through all these scrimmages.”
With a slight, almost invisible, tap of her stick, Matson eased the ball into the back of the net for UNC’s third goal of the evening. Her pass to Heck just minutes later opened UNC’s lead up to four.
“She’s special,” Shelton said. “What can you say? She makes things happen. She’s a playmaker not only for herself but she’s a catalyst for others as well.”
Taylor and Walbert split time in the box
One of the biggest storylines entering the 2022 season for UNC field hockey is who would take over as the primary goalkeeper for the Tar Heels. Saturday’s exhibition showed that rather than a goalkeeper battle, this year’s squad may instead have an ideal rotation on their hands.
Switching at the half, both sophomore goalkeeper Abigail Taylor and first-year Kylie Walbert registered minutes in the goal and recorded several impressive saves. The range and agility of the duo stood out in particular, as both were able to make sliding saves outside of the goal while also blocking sailing shots within it.
“They’re really just stepping up and it’s just comforting,” Matson said. “It’s going to be a much more cohesive season because I think we have threats all over the field, including our goalies.”
Renewed defensive structure
According to Taylor, UNC’s defensive structure was sometimes “a little bit free-form" last year.
This season, with the hiring of former Tar Heel and three-time ACC Defensive Player of the Year Caitlin Van Sickle as an assistant coach, North Carolina has shaped up its defensive structure.
This renewed focus was on display Saturday night, as the Tar Heels shifted seamlessly between zonal coverage at the 50-yard mark and man-to-man coverage at the 25-yard mark and in the shooting circle.
“Our structure has improved greatly,” Taylor said. “We’re looking for, not necessarily perfectionism, but we’re looking for a 10 percent increase, every single day, in the way that we practice together. I think that this scrimmage was a super good image of what we’ve been practicing together off of the playing field.”
UNC’s cohesion was especially impressive, as players across position groups were able to tap the ball away from their marked player.
In particular, first-year Sietske Brüning displayed versatility in the midfield and backfield to complement sister backs Romea and Ciana Riccardo.
“I think our defense is solid,” Shelton said. “We still have to work on ball speed, we carried the ball a little more than I liked. But overall I’d say I’m very pleased with this scrimmage as we get ready to play Michigan next week.”
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