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Despite 2-0 win over Wake Forest, penalty corners remain an issue for UNC field hockey

UNC senior forward Erin Matson (1) protects the ball during the Tar Heels' match against Wake Forest on Friday, Sept. 23, 2022, at Karen Shelton Stadium.

North Carolina field hockey coach Karen Shelton said her team has about five to seven different penalty corner plays it likes to throw at opponents. 

Some are "higher-percentage", while some "are a little riskier,” she said.

There are even a few that the veteran coach still has hidden up her sleeve — yet the Tar Heels were forced to put many on display in their 2-0 win over No. 15 Wake Forest on Friday.

"It’s a little bit of trial and error and Wake has to try and guess what we’re going to throw at them," she said. "They might have to alter their defense a little bit.”

However, despite UNC's fake-out plays, evasive passes and powerful slap shots, the Demon Deacons' penalty corner defense remained notably stout.

Throughout the contest, North Carolina failed to capitalize on seven earned penalty corners. A week removed from a season-low one penalty corner earned in their 3-0 victory over Louisville, it’s clear that this is an area of concern for the soon-to-be top-ranked Tar Heels.

While North Carolina entered Friday’s match ranked in the top three nationally in goals and points per game, the Tar Heels were tied for 30th in the country in average penalty corners earned.

While Shelton said that seven corners were a “reasonable amount,” she admitted that the team should “get a couple (of goals) out of that.”

“We talk about how many times we entered the circle,” Shelton said. “And when we enter it, we want 50 percent of that time to either be a shot on goal, a penalty corner or a goal. And we weren’t reaching that number.” 

First-year forward/midfielder Ashley Sessa said that penalty corners were “definitely” a point of emphasis for the team last week, as the Tar Heels drilled these plays for 30 minutes before and after each team practice.

In weekly blue vs. white scrimmages, UNC is focusing on forcing more corners to get higher-percentage shots. 

“You can tell in our other games that we’re very goal hungry, so sometimes we won’t take an easy corner right there," Sessa said. "We’ll force a shot and it might not be the best decision."

Fifth-year senior forward Erin Matson, who was responsible for both of UNC’s goals on Friday, chalked up North Carolina’s focus to being more “smart in the circle.”

“I think we got away from our passing game a little bit in Louisville, so really just looking to be 2-touch,” Matson said. “Not looking for long balls, we just like to play fluid, pretty hockey, so always having an option for the ball-carrier in the circle. If it’s crowded, look for a foot and get an outcome.”

In the first half against Wake Forest, UNC’s passing game got away from the team once again. 

As defensive pressure from the Demon Deacons pushed North Carolina to one side of the field, UNC made several errant passes, including one in the opening minutes where Sessa had to slide across the Astroturf before the ball rolled out of bounds.

At halftime, the Tar Heels knew they needed to make some adjustments. 

“Our thought was, we want to make the pass shorter so we can come back around and not fall into their trap,” Shelton said. 

Entering the second half, UNC did a much better job maintaining possession, especially thanks to the front field pressure of Sessa and Matson on the offensive press. With seemingly every opportunity the Demon Deacons had on offense, the Tar Heels quickly regained the ball.

Still, even after North Carolina went on to earn four penalty corners in the second half, and six shots off of these corner plays, UNC failed to capitalize on each of these opportunities and subsequent rebounds. 

Matson said that while her team showed improvements in earning penalty corners on Friday, the conversion of these chances remained troublesome, which should be something to monitor moving forward.

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“I’ll take responsibility for that,” Matson said. “I had a couple (shots) today that I could’ve put not straight into the goalies’ chest, but we’re working on it. As long as we’re getting corners and practicing them and being deliberate with the execution, then hopefully they’ll start to fall.”


@dthsports |

Shelby Swanson

Shelby Swanson is the 2023-24 sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as an assistant sports editor and senior writer. Shelby is a junior pursuing a double major in media and journalism and Hispanic literatures and cultures.