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UNC field hockey team seeks another title with Erin Matson as head coach

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UNC first-year midfielder and forward Sanne Hak (5) celebrates after a goal during the second half of the exhibition field hockey match against Duke at Karen Shelton Stadium on Sunday, Aug. 20, 2023. UNC won 5-3.

The North Carolina field hockey program is entering a new era with first-year coach Erin Matson at the helm, yet the team’s mantra is still the same. 

"One game at a time."

All eyes are on Matson’s first year as the leader of the program. After a series of exhibition games against Wake Forest and Duke, she said the players are focused on staying in the moment and taking care of business each day. 

Matson said the team immediately bought into her transition as head coach following Karen Shelton’s retirement. Part of that is because the expectations for the team haven't changed.

“[Matson] still has the same standards," sophomore forward Ryleigh Heck said. "She makes the team better playing with us, and as a coach, [she makes us] even better. She knows us, and she knows the program well.”

New team leadership takes shape

With the graduations of Matson and former co-captain Meredith Sholder, the Tar Heels needed new leadership from within the locker room. On Friday, the team selected seniors Katie Dixon and Romea Riccardo as this year’s captains. 

Riccardo, a starting defender for the past four years, is entering her fifth season with UNC after redshirting in 2018. She said her primary motivation is imparting the team’s tight-knit culture and legacy of winning onto her younger teammates. 

Without Matson playing, the Tar Heels will have a major void to fill  —  Matson was not only the team’s leading scorer but also the ACC’s all-time career leader in goals and points. 

But, according to Matson, the Tar Heel roster is deep enough to make up for her absence on the field.

Matson said on Friday that Heck will most likely become the team’s leader on offense. Last season, the New Jersey native was one of the Tar Heels' most consistent contributors with 18 goals and two assists. In UNC's 4-1 exhibition win over Wake Forest, Heck recorded the first goal for the Tar Heels – just like she did in the 2022 NCAA Championship game against Northwestern.

“She's so creative on the ball,” Matson said. “She's patient. She's super smart, so she makes stuff happen.”

Matson also said the team will rely on veteran returners such as Riccardo, junior goalkeeper Abigail Taylor and junior back Kelly Smith, as well as fresh faces like first-year forward Charly Bruder and midfielder and forward Sanne Hak.

Tough opposition awaits in non-conference schedule

UNC will face the Michigan Wolverines and the Iowa Hawkeyes in Chapel Hill next weekend as a part of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. North Carolina struggled early against the Hawkeyes in last season's iteration of the cross-conference battle but came back from a two-goal deficit to force an overtime victory.

On Sept. 1 and 3, the Tar Heels will compete in the ACC-Ivy Challenge in Philadelphia, where they will face UPenn and Princeton. Princeton was one of the better teams in the country last season, giving UNC trouble before its ultimate 4-3 loss to the Tar Heels last year.

As the defending national champions, Matson said there’s a target on the Tar Heels' backs in every game, but that's nothing new for this program. For now, Riccardo said the team’s eyes are set on the first game of the season against Michigan and Iowa.

“I'm super excited to start off with two tough games,” she said. “It just sets the tone for the season.”

@carolinewills03

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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