As senior forward Erin Matson lined up for player introductions for the final time at UNC field hockey’s Karen Shelton Stadium, she looked up towards her father, Brian, and boyfriend, Ben Casparius, in the stands.
“I always find those two, but today was a little extra special,” she said.
On Sunday, North Carolina earned a 5-2 win over Saint Joseph's in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. But for the Tar Heels’ senior class, Sunday’s win was about more than just moving on to the Final Four in Storrs, Conn., this Friday — it was about playing at home one last time.
"I gave all of those seniors a nice ol' big hug," head coach Karen Shelton said. "I think for them, there was the realization of it (the final home game), but once the whistle blows, we're all business. So, I don't think that those emotions played on the field."
Perhaps nobody felt the urgency of Sunday’s game more than Matson, who put together a hat trick in her final game at Karen Shelton Stadium and moved to third all-time in NCAA Division I goal leaders. Her three goals, two of which were assisted by senior forward Paityn Wirth, helped the Tar Heels secure the win.
“I think it’s funny because, it’s in a way, kind of full circle,” Matson, who scored her 13th career hat trick on Sunday, said. “The amount of times I’ve had hat tricks, a lot of them have been here. It’s easy to play on our home turf.”
In a testament to her explosive ability, Matson scored her first two goals of the game in a span of two minutes at the end of the second quarter. Her second goal of the afternoon — and 133rd of her career — moved her to third place in all-time NCAA Division I goals, passing Iowa’s Kristy Gleason.
However, in the final home game for UNC legends like all-time ACC leading scorer Matson and ACC Defensive Player of the Year and ACC Tournament MVP Meredith Sholder, Wirth brought a critical early spark for the Tar Heels that shouldn't go overlooked.
Wirth, who entered Sunday with just three goals on the season, got UNC out to a 1-0 lead with her timely rebound and put-back in the 10th minute of play. Wirth added two assists to her stat line, supplementing Matson’s first two goals of the game to help North Carolina jump out to a 3-0 lead.
Wirth was quick to pass off the credit for this scoring spurt to the “energy” between her and Matson. Her teammate Sholder, on the other hand, credited most of Wirth’s success on Sunday to her pressing.
“The way she presses, it’s scary when she’s running at you,” Sholder said. “Her back tackles have been awesome and she comes back for the ball. She works so hard so it’s nice to see her get a little credit.”
After the game, one thing that Sholder, Matson and Wirth could all agree on is that they’re ready for the rest of NCAA Tournament play, which Wirth called “our redemption tour.”
That tournament run could very well end with a rematch against Northwestern in the NCAA Championship. After being knocked out of the NCAA Tournament by the Wildcats last year in the first round, Wirth said “it would be nice to have a rematch.”
“That team last year, we will not lose to them again,” she said.
But, before they fully turned their focus to acknowledge the program's 26th Final Four appearance, the Tar Heels took a moment to celebrate on the field.
With a little under two minutes remaining, Matson was being subbed out when she made a special request of Shelton that she knew the "senior class would’ve appreciated.” Matson asked to end the game with her fellow seniors, and Shelton subbed in senior reserves Brooke Behan and Steph Weber.
When the buzzer sounded, the veteran squad came together in a circle, tearing up and hugging each other in their final outing at Karen Shelton Stadium.
“There’s a lot of memories and special moments that we’ve shared,” Matson said. “It was really special for us to have that one to add to the list.”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.