When the University of North Carolina named Erin Matson as its new field hockey coach, there was plenty written and said about her age. She turned 23 less than three months after being hired, and she’s now in charge of the most successful program in NCAA history. Matson is replacing legendary Tar Heels coach Karen Shelton, who won 10 national championships during her 42 years at the school.
But it’s likely those making a big deal about Matson’s age won’t have to worry. The Unionville High School grad has been invested in the team since she was 18. “I came in as a freshman barking at everybody to do this and do that,” she says. “I got that from the experience I had as a player on the U.S. national team. I had high expectations.”
One of the greatest players in division I field hockey history, Matson heled the Tar Heels win four national titles.
Matson is one of the greatest players in Division I field hockey history. Shelton thinks she’s the best. She helped the Tar Heels win four national titles during her five years on the team, using her NCAA-allotted COVID year in 2022. With an 89-8 record, she’s a three-time winner of the Honda Sports Award, given to the best collegiate female athlete in each of 12 sports. “She’s the Michael Jordan of the field hockey world,” says junior UNC forward Kennedy Cliggett, who’s now being coached by her former teammate.
“I want to make everybody proud—that’s nothing new. I want to be the best. I will be the best. I’ll do what it takes.”
The Landenberg native is taking over the nation’s top program just a few months after college graduation. Then again, Shelton was all of 23 when she got the Carolina job—one year removed from a legendary career at West Chester University, where she won the Honda Sports Award three straight years. The Heels also hired women’s lacrosse coach Jenny Levy when she was 24, and she’s since led the program to three national titles. Legendary women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance took over the UNC men’s program at 24 and added women’s duties two years later. He’s got 22 national championships to show for that. “There’s a history of hiring young coaches here,” Matson says. “It helps that those coaches are so supportive. They’ll say, ‘Let’s sit down and talk, or let’s get coffee.’ I’ve picked Jenny’s brain, and Anson is a huge supporter.”
Shelton has been quite helpful, even if she has adopted a similar strategy to that of former UNC men’s basketball coach Roy Williams, who receded into the shadows after he retired in 2021 and allowed his successor, Hubert Davis, to walk his own path. Shelton is available whenever Matson wants to talk—and that’s been often. “If the first few months are an indication, she’s hit the ground running,” says Shelton. “She’s been working nonstop, asking all the right questions and tapping into people with more experience than her. She has a load of support. She’s smart and has a great work ethic. She’s going to be successful.”
Shelton had several people in mind as her successor. It was UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham who made the final decision on Matson. “Erin knows how to inspire, listen, teach and win—all qualities that will translate well to the sidelines and make her a terrific head coach,” Cunningham says.
Toward the end of Carolina’s spring training period, team members gathered on a Tuesday afternoon to complete a training run to measure conditioning, endurance and mental toughness. There was Matson, running alongside her players. “She was out there pushing us,” Cliggett says.
A lot of coaches think they could compete with their players, but Matson actually can—and best most of them. During the spring practices, she took part in some drills but never actually scrimmaged with players. That’s coming. “I wanted to set a barrier between us before getting out there,” she says.
Matson remains friends with many of the former teammates she’s now coaching—a tricky dynamic for any leader.
Does Matson think the players will go at her with a fervor? “That’s the best thing,” she says. “They will.”
Cliggett agrees. “I think we’ll take some shots at her,” she says. “The defense will be up on her.”
Matson started playing field hockey at age 6, when her mother, Jill, signed her up for a clinic. A former player at Yale University, Jill had a feeling her daughter would take to the sport. “I fell in love with it,” Matson says.
Matson played field hockey at Unionville her freshman and sophomore years, spending the rest of her high school career with Team USA and her club squad, the WC Eagles, out of Spring City. She chose UNC because “it felt like home.”
Matson still returns to Chester County to catch up with friends and family, though she won’t be spending too much time in the area over the next few months. She has a big job to do, and expectations for UNC’s program continue to be high. Even a slight dip in the success rate could raise questions about her experience. “I want to make everybody proud,” says Matson. “That’s nothing new. I want to be the best. I will be the best. I’ll do what it takes.”
Matson remains friends with many of the former teammates she’s now coaching—a tricky dynamic for any leader. But she’s established boundaries on and off the field. “One practice we weren’t playing to her standard, so she put us on the line to run sprints,” Cliggett says. “After the first sprint, we knew she was the head coach.”
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