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Q&A: Erin Matson discusses transition to new role as UNC's field hockey head coach

UNC senior forward Erin Matson (1) drives the ball during the NCAA Field Hockey Championship game against Northwestern in Storrs, Conn. on Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022. UNC beat Northwestern 2-1.

The Daily Tar Heel's Caroline Wills sat down with field hockey head coach Erin Matson as she transitions from star player to head coach after she graduated in December. Matson is the most decorated field hockey player of all time, winning five ACC championships, four national championships and is a three-time Honda Award recipient. 

The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

The Daily Tar Heel: What was it like showing up for that first day of practice as the program’s head coach? 

Erin Matson: It was indescribable. The first meeting with the team was amazing, and then we got right to work the next day. It was great. There was lots of energy, excitement and support, and then there was that element of, “Okay, this is new. Let’s figure this out together.” We all kind of just bought into that — things are going to be different, things are going to feel different. 

DTH: What has been the best part of this new role?

EM: I guess two things come to mind. One, the fact that I have a lot of interest with things, and I think it’s an amazing job because there are so many things to take care of. There’s the team, and there’s the scheduling and the planning part of it, and then there’s engaging the fans and event management side of things and then there’s handling the staff and individual meetings.

It’s such a wide range of what coaches do. I think a lot of people think it’s just coaching the sport, where that’s the tiniest part of what we do. So, I really just love all of the little things that need to get done, paying attention to detail and all of the different kinds of jobs that it requires.

The overarching, most amazing thing that I love about it is just being in this position, where I have such an amazing group of girls, a team and people who want to excel, be the best at what they do and come here and really enjoy their time here.

DTH: What is a lesson you’ve learned throughout this first initial period about coaching?

EM: The biggest piece of advice, or at least most frequent piece of advice I’ve gotten, is to just trust your gut. You’re in this position for a reason. People trust you. You just need to gather all the data, gather all the information, ask the questions again and do all of the work that’s necessary. 

DTH: How has it been with returners who played with you last year to go from seeing you as a teammate to a head coach role? 

EM: It’s been one of the most special parts of the job. I think about them every day – whether or not it’s during practice or outside of practice. I’ve told countless people, “Some day, when they’re all graduated and we sit around a table at alumni weekend, I’m going to have to figure out a really special way to just say thank you because they are just such an amazing group.”

It’s my responsibility to balance that with holding them to high standards and not letting their heads get too big. But, I make sure to tell them how grateful I am for them every day. There will be a time when I can look at each of them in the eye and say, "Thank you," because they respect the boundaries, they work so hard and they really care about this program, me, Coach Shelton, the legacy and everything so much. 

DTH: What would you say is something that you learned about the team from the first couple of spring scrimmages? 

EM: It was a big transition. One, with a lot of senior leadership like Meredith Sholder and I leaving after last season, plus the transition of Coach Shelton and now me and all of that. I think at the start of it, it was, not doubt or anything, but just kind of, “Okay, who’s going to step up and be the leader or the core group? Who are the people going to look to, to carry the team and lead the way?”

I think throughout the spring, they really found themselves and found their confidence, in the sense that it doesn’t need to be just one or two people and really kind of leaned on each other — really bonded. They’re so close. I think they just found that confidence in the fact of, “Okay, I’m going to do my job. I’m going to do it well. I’m going to make sure I’m doing it for the person next to me.”

The minute they found that and ran with it, the play got better.

DTH: You mentioned it’s been the group as a whole emerging as leaders and standing together. But are there any specific players that you’re seeing stepping up and filling any gaps left or anyone that is emerging as leaders?

EM: We have some veterans coming back for me. Romea Riccardo is going to be a huge force. Paityn Wirth, same thing. Ryleigh Heck had an amazing freshman year, and I know we’re looking for her to be a leader. She’s ready to assume that role. 

Sietske Brüning is going to be an amazing person in the midfield working with Ciana Riccardo, Romea’s sister – both of them played really great this spring. Abigail Taylor is going to come in and kind of lead the defense – Kelly Smith also.

We have a couple younger ones, a couple of first years, who will make an impact — Charly Bruder, Sanne Hak had a great spring. We have Grace Pottebaum in the backfield, who’s going to really step up this year coming off a redshirt year. She had a great jump with her confidence and way of play in the spring.

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