A Perfect Season — For the Fifth Time

Field hockey Coach Karen Shelton says talent, toughness and focus were the ingredients for this year’s undefeated championship team.

After 42 years as head coach, Karen Shelton is retiring. The trophies surrounding her here are from the past five years. Photo: Jack Baddour

UNC’s field hockey team capped off a perfect season Nov. 20 after defeating Northwestern University 2-1 to capture the 2022 NCAA national championship. Northwestern tied the game with about 2 minutes remaining, but National Player of the Year Erin Matson ’22 quickly answered, scoring the winning goal with 1:19 remaining.  The win was Carolina’s fourth national championship in the past five years and 10th overall for the storied program. UNC has played in half of all 42 NCAA national field hockey championship games.

Head Coach Karen Shelton, after whom UNC’s field hockey stadium is named and who has coached the Tar Heels since 1981, said this year’s championship was especially gratifying because it was record-setting. The Tar Heels finished 21–0, for its fifth undefeated season. The victory, she said, was significant for the squad’s current players and all former team members.

In December Shelton announced her retirement.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

Your thoughts on yet another perfect season?
I’m just so excited for our team. The beginning of this year’s team started last January when they committed to a process to work day in and day out. I think this team was one of the toughest, most talented teams we’ve had. They’re mature, hardworking and disciplined. It really was a bit of a dream team.

What makes this championship so special?
We were tied with Old Dominion University with nine championships. Getting a 10th was not only important to this team that was so involved day in and day out, but to all of our alums over the years. I’ve been the coach here since 1981, and a lot of the teams that have played here feel connected.

When did you believe your squad could run the table again this year?
One of the special qualities of this team was they remained focused. We do remind them, every time we play, about the most important game of the season, which, as we all know, is the next one. So we stay focused on what the opponent is and prepare, with respect, for each team. They approached it cerebrally. They thought about what we needed to do. We put together a plan, and they followed it, by and large, game in and game out.

Did you ever doubt the outcome of the title game?
No. I felt confident in this team. I watched a lot of college games this year and felt we were the best team. But I’ve also coached long enough to know that doesn’t always mean success, and I’ve been part of the best team that didn’t win. Sometimes the ball bounces a certain way. I’m not saying it’s all luck, but luck comes into play in sports. I think this group just performed as we had hoped. But even when they tied it up, I felt like if it went to overtime we’d win in overtime.

What would you like to say to your players?
Congratulations! I tell them all the time they’re beautiful, strong, powerful women. They executed and earned the right to say they’re 2022 national champions. Nobody gave it to them. It was based on hard work, effort, sacrifice and a lot of fun. They’re remarkable, and I’m proud of them.

What would you like to say to your coaches?
I would thank them because this staff is the best staff that we’ve had in the history of our coaches, and I’ve had a lot of great coaches. Hats off to Associate Head Coach Grant Fulton, Assistant Coach Caitlin Van Sickle [’12], Volunteer Assistant Coach Manuel Garcia Nieto and Performance Analyst Scott Sherban.

After helping to win the championship, her fourth, Erin Matson ’22 recreated an iconic 1996 locker-room photo that featured another Tar Heel G.O.A.T. Photos: Andrew Bernstein (Jordan)/UNC Field Hockey

What about the fans?
The fans were amazing all season long, and the band came to support us. It was 33 degrees in Connecticut, and with the wind chill it was 22 degrees. The conditions were brutal, but they set up a home-field atmosphere for our team.

After the game, what were your emotions?
Pure joy and happiness. I’m just proud of the team, of my staff, of everybody involved. The team around the team that doesn’t get the recognition. This is what we wanted to do, and we were able to methodically, game by game, step by step, brick by brick make it happen.

What does this victory say about the strength of women’s sports at UNC?
I’m just so proud of our women’s sports teams. These women benefit so much by playing college sports. They have confidence, and they learn communication skills, teamwork, resilience, composure under pressure — just so many things that will carry them through the next phase of their lives. I think the world of our program and of Bubba Cunningham’s leadership. It has truly been a blessed year.

Do you think women’s sports will continue gaining in popularity in the U.S.?
Absolutely. Title IX has made huge impacts, and it’s continuing to grow. These student-athletes come to Carolina and [other] universities to gain an education. Even though we’re not in a classroom, they learn so much. I’m just proud to be associated with a program that’s done so well in women’s sports, and it starts with leadership.

Why did you decide to retire now?
After 42 years, an undefeated season and a 10th national title, it seemed like the time to retire. There would never be a perfect time, and I’ll miss many things about coaching. But I hope to still be around the program, the department and the sport, and I’ll certainly continue to cheer for the Tar Heels.

What will you miss most about coaching?
Building those day-to-day relationships with the players and watching them develop athletically, academically and socially throughout their time in Chapel Hill. I treasure those relationships with student-athletes from all 42 teams, and I will miss the honor of representing the University of North Carolina in competition. For 42 years I have been so proud to be a Tar Heel, and that’s never going to change.

— Laurie D. Willis ’86


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