For the North Carolina field hockey team, the 2021 season was an anomaly.
The Tar Heels, who finished with a lackluster 13-7 record, stumbled out of the gate with two losses to Michigan and Iowa in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge to begin the year 0-2 for the first time since 1992. This weekend, the team made the trip to Winston-Salem looking to avenge the defeats against the same non-conference foes.
By Sunday afternoon, the team did exactly that. The Tar Heels returned to Chapel Hill with two wins, including a come-from-behind thriller against Iowa.
The weekend began with a dominant 5-1 win over No. 3 Michigan that was highlighted by a hat trick by first-year Ashley Sessa. Although this was a promising start to the season, the weekend was far from over. On Sunday, the Tar Heels had another top-five matchup against the Hawkeyes.
Iowa had a hard-fought weekend that began with a 2-1 double-overtime win over Wake Forest. It looked as though the Hawkeyes would have an easier time in Sunday’s UNC faceoff, when despite being outshot 10-2 by halftime, they led 2-0.
But then, the Tar Heels regrouped at halftime and turned the game in their favor.
“I think we really just came together at halftime,” senior forward Erin Matson said. “There wasn't a second of 'This isn't gonna work for us' or a second of doubt.”
The Tar Heels were able to put themselves on the scoreboard just under 42 minutes into the game with a goal by sophomore midfielder Lisa Slinkert. However, they struggled to maintain that momentum and were scoreless for the rest of the third period.
North Carolina seemed to be running out of time and was staring at its first loss of the year. But then, with only eight minutes left on the clock, first-year midfielder Sietske Brüning changed tied things up with the first goal of her college career.
“It was an amazing feeling, knowing that you can make a difference, and I think it was an important way for us to get back into it,” Brüning said. “We got a lot of energy from it, which is always nice to bring to the team.”
Iowa was unable to score before time expired, and the game went into overtime. The Hawkeyes seemed to have the edge, having already played in an overtime contest earlier in the weekend.
“As a coach, you don't want to have a game like that, but it's really good for you,” head coach Karen Shelton said. “It tested everything that we had so early in the season.”
Overtime tested the Tar Heels, but they passed.
A goal by Matson less than four minutes into the extra period ended the game and helped UNC escape with an undefeated record.
“The past year there's been a lot of talk about the Big Ten, and it's always been there, the ACC and Big Ten rivalry,” Matson said. “The ACC has always been a field hockey conference, so we're looking to make sure that it stays that way.”
UNC was picked as the preseason favorite to win the ACC. The performance at the ACC-Big Ten Challenge not only demonstrates the Tar Heels are trending in the right direction, but also serves as vengeance for last year’s season-opening losses to Michigan and Iowa.
“I'm thrilled for our Heels,” Shelton said. “We showed great leadership and resilience today.”
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