From player to coach — at 22 years old.
It was January 2023 during an emergency team meeting, and Erin Matson crossed the threshold of the UNC field hockey film room. Instead of taking her usual seat in one of the plush navy chairs — where she had previously spent the last five years studying her craft — Matson remained in the front of the room.
Not even two months after her graduation from North Carolina and its field hockey program, Matson announced to her former teammates that she had accepted the position of head coach.
“We touched on a couple things, just respecting the boundaries and you know, ‘This is different and unique, let's not make it weird together,’ ” Matson said. “Everyone needs to be bought in.”
If you're not caught up yet, here’s some more context to the hire:
- Now at 23 years old, Matson is currently the youngest coach in DI athletics.
- Matson is easily the most decorated player in the NCAA sport; she’s a three-time Honda Sport Award recipient and won four national titles and five conference championships
- Former UNC head coach Karen Shelton was the most successful coach in DI field hockey, winning 10 national championships in her 42 years at the helm of the program. Her 10th and final championship came just last season, Shelton’s final campaign before retirement.
Months after Matson took over the UNC program, we checked in with Matson and the Tar Heels to see how the transition has manifested throughout the spring and summer.
Matson's no stranger to being the youngest. At 16 years old, she became the youngest player to join the full U.S. national team, and has defied expectations ever since at North Carolina. She was the second UNC player to be named first-team All-America after her freshman season and continued to win the honor four more times.
The Tar Heels are also already accustomed to Matson as a leader — they voted her team captain for three consecutive years. When Matson decided to apply for the job in December, she was transparent with her former teammates from the jump. She felt as supported then as she did when she got hired in late January.
“In the moment she was named, the players understood [Matson] was in a completely different role,” UNC assistant coach Manuel Garcia Nieto said. “That made this process easier for her.”
Matson was tasked with getting to know her athletes in a different way than she did as their teammate, and conversations about academics and balancing field hockey and school were just the start. According to graduate student Romea Riccardo, who played beside Matson for five seasons and lived with her in college, it took time to adapt to the sudden change in roles.
“Relationship-wise, obviously she went from living with me, chilling and doing social activities with me, to not being able to do those things with us,” Riccardo said. “That was cut right off the bat.”
Riccardo is taking her sixth year with UNC field hockey this fall — and also happens to be nine months older than her current head coach.
“A lot of people are like, ‘Whoa, isn't that weird that you're older than her?' ” Riccardo said. “But this is a unique situation. It's like a beautiful thing that she was able to have this job at such a young age. So it didn’t even cross my mind that it would be weird.”
As another purposeful way to separate herself as a coach, Matson has refrained from scrimmaging with the players during practice. She still participated in the spring run test, though, to keep her players’ conditioning in check.
“‘Hey, look, if your coach can do it [better than you], that's pretty embarrassing,’” Matson laughed.
Consistency versus change
There are many parallels between Matson and Shelton. Along with their close personal relationship, both were members of the U.S. national team and are the only two to be named Honda Sport Award winners three times each. The two were also hired for the UNC coaching position at a young age — Shelton at 23 years old in and Matson at 22.
However, the field hockey landscape, and women's sports altogether, was very different when Shelton took over as the program's fifth head coach in 1981, the year of the first NCAA championship for the sport. Field hockey was one of the original women's sports at UNC, and none of the women's coaches were hired as full-time employees.
"It was a bit different. I was paid $7,700 a year," Shelton said. 'We were on grass still back in those days."
Shelton almost literally built the program, brick by brick. The program was only 10 years old when she took over; the legendary coach ended her tenure with a nationally recognized program and a new field hockey stadium with her name emblazoned on it.
In 2019, Shelton told the Carolina Alumni Review that she had planned to retire following her seventh national championship in 2018, Matson's first year. But Shelton remained for a few more seasons — and the winning didn't stop. Matson helped lead the team to a 46-game winning streak and recorded 53 goals and 34 assists in her first two seasons. And Shelton ended up seeing Matson's playing career through.
In this year's hiring process, though, it was Matson’s platform of evolving from the Shelton dynasty that won over the athletic department.
“It was such a topic in my hiring process,” Matson said. “Bubba [Cunningham, UNC Athletic Director] was like. ‘I don’t want another Karen, it’s time for a change.’ And Karen understood that, too.”
“I'm sure with Erin, some of my coaching will filter through,” Shelton said. “But she'll pick and choose and take what she feels is important and combine that with her own personality.”
So, what will change? For starters, Matson’s recent experience in the NCAA and international field hockey circuits means that she’s well-versed in the modern game. She’s added more game-situational drills to the team’s toolkit, as well as a competition day of weekly practices.
Matson is tasked with building an attack without herself as the focal point, utilizing sophomore Ryleigh Heck — 2022 ACC freshman of the year and Matson’s right hand last season — as well as freshman forward Charly Bruder and Syracuse grad transfer Pleun Lammers on the front line. Adding depth to the defense, Matson found that sophomores Grace Pottebaum and Sietske Brüning have stepped up.
During spring training, the biggest variable for the team was leadership. Filling in the gaps left by 2022 captains Meredith Sholder and Matson, the UNC coaching staff has worked with a spring leadership group to discuss the team culture.
"We've been working to initiate new leaders, that was one of our main concerns during the spring season," Nieto said. “We need different people with different styles of leadership doing different things in a complimentary way."
In sum, Matson strives to keep the core of the program and the values of the team the same. With consistency ranging from practice times to sports psych sessions, Matson has ensured that the program known for its close team dynamic and fast-paced hockey will stay true to its roots.
“It's just more little tweaks and enhancements rather than big changes,” Matson said. “Because, hey, we've been successful. Nothing needs to completely pivot.”
The Matson era
Matson’s name carries weight as one of the most influential recruiting tools in collegiate field hockey. With her accolades spanning from being the all-time leading scorer in ACC and NCAA tournament history to scoring game-winners while on Team USA in international competitions, Matson is a player that any recruit would know.
“She has a relatability, to not only her peers, but to younger kids,” Shelton said. “She’s a role model.”
In turn, Matson has the Carolina blue brand to back her expertise. Karen Shelton Stadium and its adjoining field hockey facility are less than five years old, and the success of the overall program has historically pulled some of the most elite athletes from clubs across the U.S. and overseas.
The team has reportedly gelled well with Matson in the driver's seat and a fresh coaching staff alongside her; Riccardo remarked that this year was "one of the best springs at Carolina." And you can trust Riccardo — she's experienced six.
“It is the collective front of everyone banding together and saying, ‘We want to do this, we want to capitalize on the uniqueness of the situation,’ ” Matson said. “And once they found that within themselves in the spring, they were pretty unstoppable. So we'll just hope to carry that through to the fall.”
There’s a high standard for the UNC pedigree; Matson says herself that a Final Four appearance is the measure of a good season. And coming off the team’s fourth national title in five years, all eyes will be on Matson and the Tar Heels this season.
Per usual, UNC will be tested early against top teams in the ACC-Big Ten and ACC-Ivy League challenges, which will set the tone for Matson’s leadership for conference play and beyond.
The decision of a school like North Carolina to hire Matson — a generational icon in her sport as a player — at 22 years old highlights progress of not just women in sports, but young women in leadership positions, as Shelton noted.
“I'm really proud of Bubba for taking the chance. This was a bold move, and I think it's going to pay off,” Shelton said.
“And I know the country is watching.”