When asked for one word to describe her approach to the 2022 season, UNC field hockey senior midfielder Meredith Sholder paused. For 57 seconds, exactly.
Just one word to express the pent-up urge to avenge last season’s poorly-met expectations? A tough task.
UNC field hockey had a worse-than-normal season last year, posting a 13-7 record and dropping its opportunity to win its fourth consecutive national championship. Holes in the defense and the attack, a tough travel schedule and residual COVID-19 effects left the team sputtering to a halt by the end of the season.
Reflecting upon last fall and how the team is moving forward into 2022, Sholder finally conjured up a word after her drawn-out moment of thought — relentless.
“We have so much potential coming into this fall,” Sholder said. “But we need to be relentless if we want to turn that potential into something great.”
The Tar Heels have worked tirelessly during their first true offseason since the COVID-19 pandemic to address the shortcomings of the 2021 season, prioritizing conditioning, signing new coaches, implementing better defensive strategies and picking up new talent for the roster.
Inconsistencies in the young backfield last year were at the top of North Carolina’s offseason to-do list, addressed by the hiring of assistant coach Caitlin Van Sickle. As a starting defender for UNC’s 2009 national championship team, Van Sickle brought not just veteran leadership to the team, but strategies in footwork, man-marking and zonal defense.
Implementing new drills and a renewed mindset, Van Sickle is working to gel the backs, spearheaded by senior Romea Riccardo, to form a tight line. Volunteer assistant coach Manuel Garcia Nieto will also join the Tar Heels on the sidelines, bringing 15 years of professional coaching experience to the team.
Despite graduating key midfielders last year, the Tar Heels still possess seasoned weapons in their offensive foundation. Senior forward Erin Matson is exercising her fifth year of eligibility to continue to play for the Tar Heels after leading the nation in scoring in 2021. Previous starters in the midfield, Sholder and senior midfielder Paityn Wirth, are also returning for their sixth and fourth years, respectively.
“I think sometimes when you have a lot of returners, you have this anticipation that you’re going to be really good,” head coach Karen Shelton said. “You start looking ahead. We don’t want to do that.”
Prominent additions to UNC are first-years Ashley Sessa andRyleigh Heck on the attack, alongside goalkeeper Kylie Walbert. All of the newcomers have already clocked experience with older UNC teammates during the offseason. Sessa played alongside Matson and Wirth in the FIH Hockey Pro League in Europe, and Heck and Walbert played in the Nexus Championship alongside 10 other current team members.
“I've only practiced for one day,” Heck said. “But I think we definitely have a very good chance of being back where we were two years ago.”
The Tar Heels will open their season with matchups against Michigan and Iowa — two of the top teams in the nation. Both foes defeated UNC in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge last year, giving the Tar Heels their worst start since 1992.
“In our sport, it's the ACC and the Big Ten, and the ACC has been so dominant for so long,” Shelton said. “Last year, we stumbled and we don't know exactly why, but the ACC has a bit of a revenge mentality as a whole to get back on top.”
Even coming off of a lackluster 2021 campaign, Shelton still believes there will be a target on the backs of her dynastic team. And armed with new weapons, the team will be prepared to fight their way back to the top — relentlessly.
“I don't think we will be an underdog, to be honest with you,” Shelton said. “I think we're going to still take everybody's best shot.”