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The Daily Tar Heel

Coach Erin Matson collects first win in ACC-Big Ten Challenge weekend matchups

UNC head coach Erin Matson looks on at her team during the field hockey game against Iowa on Aug. 27, 2023, in Karen Shelton Stadium. UNC lost 3-2 in overtime.

Under the glow of the Friday night lights, head coach Erin Matson and the North Carolina field hockey team walked out onto the field of Karen Shelton Stadium for the first game of the season. 

It was a different kind of season kickoff. 

Behind them, an overflowing crowd stacked from the field-level first row to the top of the stadium spilled into the fields on either side. 

Over 1,700 people — the largest crowd in facility history — packed into the stadium to witness the beginning of a new era. A new chapter in the program’s history books. The passing of the whistle from coaching legend Karen Shelton to an on-the-field legend, Matson. 

The No. 1 Tar Heels took down No. 4 Michigan,  3-2,  on Friday but fell to No. 7 Iowa in overtime, 2-3, two days later. The weekend marked the first time since 1981 that the Tar Heels started the season with a new head coach.

“The atmosphere here tonight [against Michigan] with the fans, under the lights and the energy of the team, it was just incredible,” Matson said after Friday's win. “It reminds me of the national championship back here. You're not going to find this [anywhere else] in America.”

In the hours leading up to the first game this weekend, Matson said she had to busy herself with miscellaneous tasks. She wiped down the tables on the balcony, visited with her family and tried to remain calm as possible to counteract her nerves. She said it wasn’t any different than the pregame jitters she would have as a player in the locker room. 

“I'm passionate,” she said. “Everybody knows that. They know how bad I want it for them. They want it just as much. They respond to my voice. They've heard it for five years on the field, so it's no different than coming from the sidelines.” 

Against the Wolverines, the young North Carolina offense did not start executing until the second quarter, when the Tar Heels scored all three of their goals.

Matson said the first regular season games were impossible to mentally prepare for — the scrimmages the team held against Wake Forest and Duke earlier this month were a completely different experience. The stakes are higher now, and she can only watch from in front of the bench. 

But according to senior forward Paityn Wirth, Matson’s transition from player to coach hasn’t affected the energy she brings to games.

“You can still hear her on the sideline like she's right next to you,” Wirth said. “The only difference is I can't find her [to pass to].”

The first-year head coach said the entire team is still grappling with what to call her. “Coach Matson” doesn't roll off the tongue for her former teammates. Not yet. 

For now, they'll stick with “Erin.”

On Sunday, the struggle to build offensive momentum stunted the team’s performance against the Hawkeyes. Unable to break through the packed defense in the circle, North Carolina struggled to respond to Iowa’s late-game aggression.

Sunday’s match marked only the third loss in program history on UNC’s home field. It was also the team's first loss since the 2021 NCAA Tournament.

“We’re going to have losses, and we’re going to have wins,” senior midfielder Katie Dixon said. “But, if we stick together and play Carolina field hockey, then ultimately, we'll bring our teams to success.”

With her first weekend as head coach in the books, Matson has now experienced both sides of the job – a win and a loss – and she's learned lessons from each. 

When the final buzzer sounded on Friday and the alma mater’s last note faded into the background, Matson was presented with a No. 1 jersey to commemorate her first win – exactly five years after her first victory in a North Carolina uniform. With the jersey in her hand, the UNC players lifted Matson high into the air in celebration.

Sunday’s emotions were the opposite. But, even with the Tar Heels suffering their first loss of the season, Matson said the 1-1 record allows them to get a loss out of the way and reduce the pressure hanging over their heads. As a coach, she exited the field with more experience than before. 

“We talked about it in the huddle — we walk off the field proud to have Carolina across our chest, and we'll stay together,” Matson said. “We've proven we can learn from wins, and we've proven we can learn from some losses, too.”

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