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UNC Field Hockey coach Erin Matson's story is one of the best that sports has to offer

An historic field hockey program gets another accolade - and 23-year-old Erin Matson makes NCAA coaching history. PIC: Robert Willett, News & Observer

Mia Hamm, Tyler Hansbrough, and Michael Jordan are forever immortalized at the University of North Carolina. Their accomplishments in their sports wearing the Tar Heel uniform brought glory to the school for years to come.

This weekend, Erin Matson added her name to the list of excellence on Chapel Hill.

In the realm of sports, few stories are as remarkable and inspiring as that of Erin Matson. She's got a lot on her resume, and could even have a case as the best NCAA field hockey player of all time. But this weekend, at the ripe age of 23, she solidified her title as the youngest Division 1 head coach to ever claim the coveted NCAA Championship any sport.

Erin Matson was destined for sports - her mother was a dual-sport athlete at Yale, and her dad played baseball at Delaware. Erin's journey brought her to Karen Shelton, who at the time (2018) had won nine ACC Coach of the Year honors at North Carolina, and had hoisted the National Championship six times. Building on the historic success, Matson found a way to garner so many accolades and honors that she was dubbed the "Michael Jordan of field hockey" over the next four seasons she spent at UNC. She captivated audiences with her mesmerizing skills, unwavering determination, and fierce competitiveness. Her resume speaks for itself; she won the ACC Player of the Year - both Offensive and outright - every season she played (5x), won the Honda Sports Award for best field hockey player in the nation three times, shattered records at the university, and won four national championships.

With her playing career reaching its pinnacle, Matson faced a defining moment – the transition from player to coach. Karen Shelton had been open about retiring in 2022 after 42 seasons - 40 of which were winning, and 25 of which resulted in ACC championships - when discussions of her replacement began. Matson's confidence in her abilities and unwavering passion for the sport prompted her to ask UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham if he would give her the head coaching job at the end of the season. Understandably filled with skepticism with the notion of a then-22-year-old taking the head coaching reins, Cunningham said “Go win a national championship...then we’ll talk.”

And that she did. Matson cruised through 2022 winning ACC Player of the Year honors for the fifth straight year, and won her fourth national championship. Just two months later, Cunningham confidently put her offer letter on the table. And very soon after, the Tar Heels had only their second coach in 43 years.

Despite her young age, Matson exuded an air of wisdom and authority that resonated with her players. She drew upon her experience as an athlete and for Karen Shelton, understanding the intricacies of the game and the challenges faced by her players. Her ability to connect with her team on a personal level fostered a sense of camaraderie and trust that was instrumental in their success.

The 2023 NCAA Championship season presented a formidable challenge. The Tar Heels faced a grueling schedule and had to navigate the pressures of high expectations with the recent changes - they played seven games against opponents that finished in the Top 7, with a combined record of 63-13. Yet, Matson's guidance and unwavering belief in her team - having known what each of them needed to hear in that situation - propelled them through each obstacle and into a Championship matchup with Northwestern on Sunday.

In a thrilling double-overtime penalty shootout, the Tar Heels, under Matson's leadership, emerged victorious, defeating the Northwestern Wildcats 2-1. This momentous victory not only secured UNC's 11th national championship but also etched Matson's name in the annals of sports history. Cunningham, standing off to the side, looked on as the team rushed the field in celebration.

Especially in the shadows of the winningest coach of all time, Matson's remarkable achievement stands as a beacon of inspiration for aspiring athletes and coaches alike. Her story demonstrates that age is merely a number and that with unwavering determination, passion, and a genuine connection with one's team.

And 2023 goes to show that there simply are no shadows anymore for Erin Matson. It's her show. She's earned it.

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