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'I know I’m the best person for this role': Erin Matson talks transition to head coach

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The UNC field hockey team celebrates their victory after the NCAA Field Hockey Championship game against Northwestern in Storrs, Conn. on Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022. UNC beat Northwestern 2-1.

Following UNC field hockey's national title win in November, former head coach Karen Shelton said it was “a sad day for Carolina field hockey” due to the departure of veteran players like Erin Matson.

Well, not so fast.

The UNC athletic department announced on Jan. 31 that Matson is taking over the helm of the North Carolina field hockey program. This comes after Shelton, college field hockey's winningest coach, retired in December following 42 seasons at UNC.

“I wouldn’t say there was necessarily a pause of if I should do something else because I know I’m the best person for this role,” Matson said. “I know the ins and outs of the program. I have experience, and I know how to coach to win.”

Matson, the program's fifth head coach, is the most decorated player in UNC field hockey history. A member of the U.S. National Team since the age of 16 and the ACC's all-time leader in goals and points, she captured four national titles and five ACC titles as a forward for UNC. 

The three-time Honda Sport Award winner and former team captain graduated in December with a degree in advertising and public relations and a minor in coaching education. 

It’s been just a month since her graduation and Matson has already exchanged the cap and gown for a whistle and a clipboard. 

“This isn’t something that the application opened, and I was like, ‘Oh this would be fun,’” she said. “Because that would definitely be a red flag.”

While she’s been a little preoccupied with winning an ACC title and a national championship, Matson said the position has been on her mind since last August. 

As a teammate, Shelton said Matson was vocal in practices and film sessions. She was a captain that players came to when they needed to voice any concerns. If Shelton designed a drill or needed someone to demonstrate a skill, she called upon Matson. 

While some have raised concerns that Matson won’t be able to lead a group of her peers, Shelton is confident in her mentee’s abilities.

“It won’t take long for her to establish herself as the leader of the program,” she said.

It also doesn’t hurt that the two head coaches have a long list of similarities — so many that Matson admits it’s “funny.” Matson is 22. Shelton was 23 when she was hired. They were both the “GOAT” of field hockey in their respective generations. They both have the competitiveness, the international experience and the Honda Awards.

But, without Shelton on the sidelines, it’s now Matson’s turn to find a balance between old and new.

“We have a winning way, so I’m planning on keeping it that way,” Matson said. “It’s exciting to look at areas that I can impact, things we can tweak, modernizing some things, making it more relatable to the young recruits and generation and everything, while of course respecting the boundaries.”

Sophomore midfielder Kennedy Cliggett said that practices under Matson, which started last Wednesday, have been going “very well.”

“She was in our shoes,” Cliggett said. “She knows how we operate. She knows what we like and what we didn't like. One thing about our team that we like is we want more realistic drills, like a 3v3 or, more realistic drills that are game-like... her practice plans are what we tend to like a lot.”

The staff, aside from Matson, will stay more or less the same, which Shelton said is the “most settling thing” for her during this time of transition.

“I think it would’ve been a much, much harder transition to hire somebody from outside to come in, who doesn’t know our team and doesn’t know our culture,” Shelton said. “I think it was a natural step and one that is going to end up being one of the best decisions and coaching hires that we’ve ever had.”

For Matson, the transition has been a bit less settling.

The 22-year-old said that her onboarding has been a “team effort” — a whirlwind of meetings with staff members like associate head coach Grant Fulton and assistant coach Caitlin Van Sickle, who have helped get Matson up to speed on everything. 

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She’s already getting involved in recruiting. Matson’s inbox is already piling up with emails from recruits. And she says her direct messages are “even more chaotic.” On top of the contacts the program already had, she’s been flooded with the interest of young girls across the nation. These girls who idolize her, who traveled to her games and crowded around her autographs, can now aspire to play for the GOAT. 

It’s a huge weight to carry on top of the day-by-day demands of her new job.

But despite the hectic nature of it all — she still needs to fully furnish her currently couch-less apartment — Matson is finding time to soak it all in.

“I do find myself driving down Franklin in a very familiar, yet totally different way,” she said. “It feels right, and like home.”

In between meetings, she’ll said throw a good song on in her car, let the windows roll down and just “enjoy this for a second.”

“I could never put on orange or red, or any other color, and preach about how, you know, ‘Come here because it’s the best school in the country.’" Matson said "I can’t. It’s a lie. And I’m biased, but that’s fine. There was never a thought of, let’s do this somewhere else. And it was kind of like, this is it and if it doesn’t work out, I’ll be OK. I’ll figure it out.”

@shelbymswanson

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com


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.