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Column: Sorry Erin Matson, but this national championship is about you

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Coach Erin Matson celebrates with friends and family after the NCAA field hockey championship game against Northwestern. UNC won in penalty shootouts with a score of 3-2.

She never wanted this year to be “the Erin show.”

In recent press conferences, Erin Matson has been asked about the significance of this season, her emotions — all the buzz from the national media. Each time, she’s smiled politely and redirected the attention to her team.

“I never want it to be about me,” Matson said on Tuesday. “And at the same time, I'm lucky enough to have been given the opportunity to build a platform where I can spread field hockey.”

Now, following UNC’s 11th national title — coming in the 23-year-old’s first year at the helm — this season doesn’t just cement Matson as a coaching legend. 

The former 4-time national champion became the youngest collegiate head coach to win an NCAA title. But most importantly, she’s laid the groundwork for women across college athletics to go directly into coaching – to have the confidence to ask their athletic director for the job they truly want.

UNC’s national championship wasn’t just a win for the program. It was a win for all athletes who don’t want to wait years or decades before coaching at the Division I level.

Because if Matson can do it, someone else can too.

While Matson’s success this season may have come as a surprise to outsiders, everyone close to the program knew she was the right person for the job — especially her predecessor.

“She’s got it all,” Karen Shelton told The Daily Tar Heel after the championship win. “She's really smart, articulate, mature and charismatic. She's smart. She knows the game inside and out. She's relatable. I knew it as the coach – you can tell when you have somebody that’s special.”

Growing up, Matson said field hockey taught her a myriad of lessons. Traveling with the U.S. team as a high schooler, she frequently had to miss class and communicate with her teachers about absences and make-up work.

She had to learn how to take care of her body. She had to always play faster and be stronger than her opponents. 

She said this job wasn’t any different.

“I’ve had to grow up — I guess you could say even faster,” she said. “But it’s not the first time. It’s not the first time that I’ve had to prove to myself that I can do that and take it on.”

She’s had to learn how to maintain a brave face on the field, too. As a player, she could hole up in her bedroom and simmer in her emotions. Now, she has to keep the team grounded after wins and build up their confidence after losses.

“Obviously, as you guys know, I’m very much learning this whole coaching thing,” Matson said  after Sunday’s win with a laugh as she donned a fresh “2023 NCAA NATIONAL CHAMPIONS” hat.

Just hours before, during the title game, she paced along the sidelines. With her hands in her pockets, she was mostly stoic — only releasing the occasional yell of encouragement or exasperation. She portrayed a calm face for the sake of her players, but after the game, she admitted she was feeling the exact opposite.

In fact, her hands were shaking. She said she was freaking out.

“I think that she is showing people all over the world that she's doing something impossible,” sophomore forward Ryleigh Heck said. “And it's proven because we just won a national championship, and I give her full credit. I'm so, so grateful that she is our coach and could not pick anyone else.”

Eventually, there will be other people like Matson — other young players-turned-coaches who garner even more accolades. It’s no longer quite as impossible. She’s made sure of it. 

Sorry, Coach, but this story had to be about you.

@carolinewills03

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