Erin Matson, arguably the greatest player in North Carolina’s field hockey history, takes on the herculean task of replacing Karen Shelton, unequivocally the program’s greatest coach. And she’s doing it all at the age of 22.
For Matson, though, there was really no other way. She couldn’t see herself at another program in any capacity.
“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.’ I can’t, it’s a lie,” Matson said. “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.”
Matson was a five-time ACC Player of the Year who helped the Tar Heels win four NCAA national championships, including in 2022. Like Shelton, she was a three-time recipient of the Honda Sport Award for field hockey.
That’s not the last similarity with the winningest coach in NCAA history. Shelton took over the UNC program in 1981 when she was just 23 years old. Matson turns 23 next month and knows that her age is one of the early challenges.
Why? Because the majority of players know her as a teammate.
“This is a new role as me being a coach and they’re my players, along with them understanding, ‘Hey, she’s not even assistant, not even a grad assistant — she’s the head coach,’ ” Matson said. “Let’s figure out what that means, identify our new normal. And I think a big step is just recognizing it and being comfortable talking about it.”
Matson’s desire to become a coach was something that evolved over time. She had some exposure coaching club teams and different aspects such as breaking down film with the team. But it really began to take shape in August before the season started.
She credits Shelton — who retired in December after 42 seasons — for paving the way for her to be the new head coach.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have a very strong support network of coaches around me throughout my entire career to just ask questions,” Matson said. “I’m very curious about everything and I love asking questions. It’s funny to look back on it now — my entire career and life, kind of everything — how it led up to here. And you know, even just little conversations like that, that you think in the moment have no purpose, and now they’re helping me.”
Replacing a legend can pose its own difficulties. The Heels in the fall won their 10th national title, which passed Old Dominion for the most in the nation. UNC practices and play its games in the stadium named after Shelton.
But Matson said she’s not concerned about it. In fact, she’s excited.
“I don’t think there’s anybody else in my situation, or at least in the field hockey community who could be a better mentor,” Matson said. “Obviously 42 years, her entire resume, what she’s done to build this program from the ground up and everything. It’s more just exciting to see what more we can do.”