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Wednesday February 8th

UNC field hockey win over Saint Joseph's marks milestone for all-time great senior class

UNC Freshman forward, Ashley Sessa (3), drives the ball towards the goal on Sunday, Oct. 23, 2022 against Saint Joseph University.
Buy Photos UNC Freshman forward, Ashley Sessa (3), drives the ball towards the goal on Sunday, Oct. 23, 2022 against Saint Joseph University.

The North Carolina field hockey team’s 2023 graduating class is one of the program’s most successful senior classes across its dynastic 51-year varsity history.

Throughout these past four years, these players have experienced adversity with the COVID-19 pandemic while maintaining a resume of perennial ACC championship contention, consecutive national championships and a cumulative record of 69-8. 

Sunday’s game was a microcosm of this class’ success — as on Senior Day, they led UNC to a 6-0 victory over No. 9 Saint Joseph’s. The victory not only highlighted UNC's veteran stars but also showed glimpses of the program's future, with three goals from first-year forward Ryleigh Heck.

For the 60 minutes of playing time, senior forward Erin Matson switched off her Senior Day sadness but let her emotions show before and after the game.

Ahead of the match, she embraced senior back Madison Orobono before sprinting down the field and bear-hugging her mom, dad and brother as she wiped tears from her eyes. Following the game, she and the rest of the seven seniors gave speeches to the underclassmen at their family tailgate.

“It was very weird — bittersweet,” Matson said. “I don't think I've ever felt like that playing a game.”

North Carolina fell to Saint Joseph's in a shocker last year, an uncharacteristic loss in a disappointing season that ended with a first-round loss in the NCAA Tournament.

During the team’s film sessions in preparation for this year's matchup, Shelton had the team rewatch each of the goals the Hawks scored against them in the 2021 defeat.

“This was a special game for us to get, and we didn't feel good about it,” Shelton said. “They had three shots, three goals against us (in 2021). It really hurt us going into the postseason.”

Motivated by this, UNC’s potent offense opened up the game with three goals in the first quarter alone, scored by Heck, Matson and sophomore forward Kennedy Cliggett.

In the second quarter, North Carolina drew three corners in a row. On the third, the ball was inserted by first-year midfielder Ashley Sessa, touched twice, then shot past the goalkeeper by senior forward Paityn Wirth.

The Tar Heel offensive onslaught continued into the second half, as Heck scored a pair of goals that resulted in her second-career hat trick at UNC. However, these two goals would not have been possible without unselfish assists from Matson, who got the ball in range for her new teammate.

“I didn't really even think,” Matson said. “I just was like ‘Oh, Ryleigh’ and I just passed the ball and we were connected. That moment stuck out because it was just like ‘Damn, that's what works and that's what we're gonna keep doing.”

Matson has mentored Heck all season long, which has resulted in their chemistry on the field. When Heck was brand-new to the team, she remembered Matson checking in and making sure she wasn’t getting down on herself about making mistakes.

The veteran's advice has helped Heck blossom as a player down the stretch, and the first-year is set to be a key component of UNC’s front line for the foreseeable future.

“(Matson's) a great player in general and unselfish,” Heck said. “It's a very good thing to look up to as younger classmen and I’m thankful for that.”

In redeeming themselves from a lackluster 2021 season and also honoring their time as Tar Heels, the seniors could not have asked for a better final regular season home game.

But before the younger Tar Heels inherit the program, this group of veterans is prepared to lead one more postseason run.

"They're still writing their legacy," Shelton said.


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