Erin Matson’s Stepping Stones

In late March, her teammates and coaches just had to watch as she cut across the fresh turf quickly from right to left, lined up a short pass and put the ball in the back of the goal. And then she did it again. It was just a practice scrimmage, but that’s inconsequential to Erin Matson, because she’s going to score no matter what time of year it is.

“I think she’s scored all of their goals,” said teammate Eva van’t Hoog, a former All-American and All-ACC player, on the sidelines to an assistant coach.

It wouldn’t be a surprise, Matson scored 12 of them in their most recent regular season, the most by any ACC player. She tallied four more goals in the ACC Tournament and then repeated that in the NCAA Tournament en route to a national title, finishing with a season total of 20.

Coming into the season, Coach Shelton didn’t expect an immediate impact from the talented freshman. But Shelton quickly learned, just like everyone else does, that Matson proves her worth early.

In the first game of the Tar Heels’ season, Matson scored a goal and dished out two more assists against Michigan. One day later, she scored another goal against Iowa. The first stepping stones, as she likes to call them, to an incredible season.

Those stepping stones are how she moves throughout everything in her career. In 2013 she was only in her early teens, but trained hard and was called up to be a member of the U.S. Women’s National Indoor Team. This way, she knew that the outdoor National Team – the Olympic team – would notice her.

She was right, and she earned a spot on the U-19 National Team just two years later. The next year, she was named to the U-21 team. She was 15.

One step up, another step up, and suddenly she was where she wanted to be four years prior. Relaxing on the dock at the Olympic training facility in Chula Vista, California, Matson got a call from National Team head coach Janneke Schopman.

“Janneke called me and asked if I wanted to come to New Zealand with them at the time to play in a tournament over there,” said Matson. “So I was like, ‘Yeah of course, like oh my gosh.”

She immediately called her parents and cried. Unlike your possible idea of what an elite athlete’s emotions might look like, she makes that point clear. She’s a crier, but especially at happy things.

. . .

Something you learn pretty quickly about Erin Matson is that everything in her life has a purpose, to make her better.

When she has free time on campus, she gets in extra practice time with teammates. Or sometimes she just sits in the stands by herself to get some peace and quiet. Yes, that’s right, she just sits there.

She learned to do her homework on the rides to and from practice growing up and to break her free time at school into 20-minute increments. After practice, she uses a 25-minute break to finish some work because that’s how she’s learned to relax.

Matson doesn’t clutter her mind with too much of the idea that she’s always the best player on the field, but she’s aware. She used to drink a whole bottle of water before she would step on the field for a game but one day she forgot to do it and still played great, so that was done. She’s got no time for superstitions or other things that clutter her mind, unless they actually make her play better.

She doesn’t like to talk about herself. Her dad instilled that in her, redirecting too much praise about his daughter to another player’s skill set.

She will, however, talk to her teammates on the field, because she’s a leader. “A lot of times freshmen kind of feel their way in and they’re not vocal as a freshman. But Erin has been very vocal,” said Karen Shelton, head coach of the UNC Field Hockey team. “And she has the right to be. She’s played at the highest level.”

Another thing she does like is being in crowds, but especially when they’re national championship celebration crowds. She thrives in those.

The number one on her jersey was chosen because it’s sleek and simple. It’s also small like her and “gets the point across,” she says. Getting points across is something she certainly knows a lot about.

. . .

ACC Championships are supposed to be one of the biggest, if not the biggest, games of the season for a team like the Tar Heels. For a freshman, possibly even the biggest moment of your career.

So when Matson lined up to pass in a penalty corner, just one minute into the game, you would expect her to be nervous. She passed the ball in to Eva van’t Hoog on the right side, who passed it short to Malin Evert in front of the goal.

Matson still positioned just in front of the goal on the left side, not far from where she passed it in, realized that the ball was probably coming back to her soon and prepared for an easy forehand shot on goal. But the ball didn’t come where she expected, rolling just outside of her right foot and forcing her to turn her back to the goal.

What does the freshman do? Panic? Pass the ball back out to a teammate? No, she quickly hops into a better position on the ball and flicks it in. Behind her back. Two seniors pass the ball around, just one minute into the game, and the freshman takes a reverse shot and scores.  “Oh my, are you kidding me?” thought Coach Shelton.

“It just kind of happened,” said Matson, giving the praise to her team for a great play call.

UNC won the game easily, 7-2, and she even got another goal 40 minutes later.

The next day, her dad called her to tell her that he had just seen her on television. SportsCenter Top 10, number 9, “A no look backhand, what?”

. . .

Often times, UNC athletes attest their choice to come to Chapel Hill on their love for the school or the opportunity to get a shot at a national championship. Matson chose UNC because it was another one of her stepping stones.

“I realized that I really do love this sport, and I really do want to go all the way…,” she said. “I realized UNC was the place for me because they could get me there, they could prepare me to be that player.”

But it was lucky bit of chance, at least on UNC’s part, that she ended up in Chapel Hill. Almost a decade ago, Coach Shelton was in Pennsylvania visiting her brother so that she could see her niece play in her field hockey games.

Shelton’s brother pulled her aside and told her about this young phenom that he had seen, “You gotta see this fourth grader,” he said. It was Erin Matson, and Coach Shelton was so impressed that she offered for Erin to come to her field hockey camp, normally meant for high school age girls.

From that moment on, she and Matson kept up with each other, whether on the phone or in person until Erin’s 10th grade year. Her last year of playing for her high school, before she moved onto the National Team, she committed to play for UNC.

It didn’t hurt that her longtime friend and teammate on the indoor national team, Romea Riccardo, would be her teammate again at UNC either.

Coach Shelton, who just finished coaching her 37th season and sixth national championship, now has a reason not to retire because of that commitment, at least not yet.

“I was going to retire and one of my colleagues said to me, ‘Why would you retire when you have Erin Matson on your team?’” said Shelton. “I’m like, ‘You’re right.’”

. . .

Matson moves the ball up the left side of the field with virtually no one in between her and Maryland’s goalie. The Tar Heels already up 1-0, it’s her chance to shine.

She crosses over to the right with the ball. The goalie steps up within a couple feet of her to cut her off from the goal. Matson tries to shoot it around the goalie – game time – but the ball slams right into the goalie’s pads.

Somehow, the ball rolls perfectly back into her stick, one smooth strike on it and – bang – goal. The Tar Heels go up 2-0 in the National Championship in the first half and no one scores again. Upperclassman Megan Duvernois scored the first goal but Erin Matson, the freshman “gamechanger” as her coach likes to call her, finished it off.

“That was definitely my favorite feeling — not necessarily because it was a pretty goal,” said Matson, reflecting on the best part of her freshman season. “It wasn’t my favorite goal, but just the feeling scoring that goal and just how excited everyone was going up 2-0 is a big deal when it’s a championship match.”

She got to do two of her favorite things that day: cry happy tears and celebrate in a big crowd. Even the most elite athletes get to be criers, huggers and screamers – it might even be her favorite part of her job.

In March, the team is focusing on developing for the future in practice. Her coach hopes they can repeat last year’s success in Matson’s sophomore season, but worries about a sophomore slump. Erin Matson is already looking towards the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Stepping stones.


Header Photo Credit: UNC Athletic Communications