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Wednesday February 1st

First-year players propel UNC field hockey to marquee season-opening win over Michigan

UNC fifth-year senior forward Erin Matson (1) receives a pass during a field hockey game against Appalachian State on Sunday, Aug. 14, 2022.
Buy Photos UNC fifth-year senior forward Erin Matson (1) receives a pass during a field hockey game against Appalachian State on Sunday, Aug. 14, 2022.

After three consecutive national championship titles, the last of which came against Michigan, the UNC field hockey team lost to the Wolverines to open the 2021 season — a campaign that was disappointingly cut short in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

“There was a lot of unfinished business for all of us,” senior forward Erin Matson said. “This first game was a really important one.”

But the Tar Heels got to flip that script in 2022. In Friday’s 5-1 season-opening victory against Michigan, the Tar Heels’ first-year players proved that they are capable of avenging last season’s early end — despite not being present for it.

North Carolina proved early on that Friday afternoon’s ACC-Big Ten matchup was an important one. Just over two minutes into the first period, the team was able to put itself on the scoreboard thanks to the first career goal from first-year midfielder and forward Ryleigh Heck. 

The Tar Heels continued to be on the attack, outshooting the Wolverines 6-0 in the first quarter. Along with Heck’s goal, two other UNC newcomers, first-years Ashley Sessa and Sietske Brüning, also had shots on goal in the first fifteen minutes of play.

“Our freshmen are great; they have great instincts,” head coach Karen Shelton said. “It’s nice to see them come together as a unit.”

Sessa continued to be a strong offensive force for the Tar Heels in Friday’s game, scoring the team’s second goal in the second period on a smart pass from Heck. 

Following an hour-long lightning delay, Sessa demonstrated that she wasn’t slowing down, with two penalty corners and a shot on goal to finish off the third quarter. The U.S. Women’s National Team member had another shot on goal to kick off the fourth quarter and went on to score two goals in the span of two minutes for her first UNC hat trick.

“It’s good to have that confidence and know that I’m capable of that,” Sessa said. “But then just leave that game behind and just focus on the next game and play my best.”

The 2022 first-year class also brought North Carolina a new goalkeeper in Kylie Walbert.  Walbert replaced sophomore Abigail Taylor in the goal in the third quarter and put up three saves to secure the win.

The Tar Heels’ performance against top teams in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge has proven essential to their postseason success. UNC was undefeated in the challenge in both 2018 and 2019 and went on to win the national championship in each season. Their less successful 2021 season began with two losses in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“We take a lot of pride in coming out strong right off the bat with some of the top teams in the nation and being able to put a mark on the games early on in the season,” Matson said.

North Carolina’s roster is incredibly young, featuring seven true first-years. The performance of these first years alongside their older teammates in the season-opener win is a hopeful start to the 2022 season and demonstrates some promise for a future without longtime legend Erin Matson after this campaign ends. As well, the cohesion of the young Tar Heels with Paityn Wirth was especially impressive, as the senior midfielder racked up three assists over the course of the game.

Next up for UNC are the Iowa Hawkeyes, who handed UNC a 3-1 loss at the start of last season. The Tar Heels might've avenged themselves against the Wolverines, but complacency is the furthest thing from their minds.

“We have to stay humble, we have to stay hard working, and we have to focus on the next one,” Shelton said.

@dthsports |

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