For Erin Matson and Meredith Sholder, it was a no-brainer to return for one final year in Chapel Hill with the North Carolina field hockey team.
“I was like, 'There's nothing to talk about,'" Matson said. "Like of course I’m freaking coming back.”
The two super seniors were back in action for UNC field hockey as the team kicked off its season with an exhibition game Sunday against Appalachian State. While the results were unofficial, North Carolina scored 13 goals in regulation and the overtime period, showcasing the offensive firepower this team wields.
“I think that our cohesion on the field really, really showed,” Sholder said. “The passing was really good, the movement was awesome. Everyone contributed.”
Sholder, who is technically a sixth-year senior, is a co-captain alongside Matson this season. Both have shone brightly in their own right, as Matson will likely leave as the greatest field hockey player in UNC history, while Sholder made the All-ACC Second Team in her last two seasons and played with the U.S. National Team in 2021-22.
As both of them have won three national titles as Tar Heels, they understand how essential it is to create good habits on the field early, and more importantly, a team identity. Scoring lots of goals is okay, but those goals have to come off of smart passes and communicative team play.
“(Head coach Karen Shelton) just always reminds us that we're a passing team so it's in our blood,” Matson said. “We came out here on day one of preseason and it was passing, unselfishness, trustworthiness out on the field.”
In Sholder's mind, UNC's brand of field hockey is "a passing sport." It's that sharing mindset from Matson and Sholder that's become ingrained in the team's chemistry, leading to electric offensive performances.
From their stick skills to their precision passing, the Tar Heels created numerous team goals that Shelton and her seniors ran through over and over again in practice just days ago, as four of the first five goals were tap-ins.
“We talk about this area in front of the goal that we want to score in, that's where most of the field goals come from and we created those,” Shelton said.
But leaders don’t just lead on the field — they must be a voice in the locker room, the engine keeping a team invested in itself.
With nine combined years of team experience, Matson and Sholder know this better than anyone.
“As a veteran, I just want to be there for all the girls, be a shoulder to lean on,” Sholder said. “I just want to leave everything on the field that I can, and I would hope to rub that off on everyone else.”
After all-time great careers wearing Carolina Blue, Matson and Sholder feel it is now their turn to give back — not only to impact the program now, but for years to come when they are gone. The biggest part of that to them is leading by example, with their play and their presence.
And with Matson and Sholder returning, talks of a storybook ending at Karen Shelton Stadium are surely swirling. Shelton, for her part, is grateful to have number 1 and 2 back for one more season.
“When your best players are your best leaders, that's special,” Shelton said. “I hope that they just savor it, enjoy it while it goes on."
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