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North Carolina’s field hockey team won the 2023 NCAA national championship Nov. 19, defeating Northwestern 2–1 in a shootout.
The championship is the 11th in program history and made Coach Erin Matson ’22 the youngest Division I head coach to win a national championship in any sport.
The match, played in Karen Shelton Stadium on UNC’s campus, was scoreless until the Tar Heels took the lead with a penalty corner shot by first-year student Charly Bruder 2 minutes and 33 seconds into the third quarter. Northwestern answered in the 44th minute of play with a penalty stroke by graduate midfielder Peyton Halsey. The match remained tied through the fourth quarter and two overtime periods, sending the teams to a penalty shootout — Carolina’s first since the 2017 NCAA semifinals.
The teams both made two of five penalty shots in the first round, which sent the match to sudden death. Graduate goalkeeper and MVP Maddie Kahn defended the first shot from Halsey, putting the game in the hands of sophomore forward Ryleigh Heck. With her back to the goal, Heck dribbled the ball around Northwestern goalkeeper Annabel Skubisz and found the back of the net to win the championship.
“Right then and there my mind just went blank,” Heck said to GoHeels.com. “I don’t even remember spinning or scoring, I just remember being with my teammates just cheering. One of the greatest feelings ever.”
The title is Carolina’s second consecutive championship — and a bit of déjà vu as UNC captured the national championship last year after defeating Northwestern 2–1. It is the Heels’ fifth national championship in the last six years and helps Carolina extend its lead in the most titles won by a collegiate field hockey program.
Matson is now the first Tar Heel to win national titles as both a player and head coach. She helped lead UNC to four championships as a player. Matson is the fourth former UNC varsity athlete to win an NCAA title as a UNC head coach. The others are Anson Dorrance ’74, women’s soccer; Joe Breschi ’90, men’s lacrosse; and Dave Klarmann ’77, men’s lacrosse. Matson led the team, which features some of her former teammates, to an 18–3 record in her rookie campaign.
“I don’t know how to put it into words,” Matson said. “I don’t know what more you’d want in a national championship matchup than tied at the end of regulation, two overtimes, sudden death shootout, just a phenomenal atmosphere.”
The crowd was a sea of Carolina Blue as the Tar Heels played at home. The NCAA announced earlier this year that UNC would host the women’s field hockey Final Four. The match was sold out early in the week, with a limited number of standing-room-only tickets available before the game. Patrons began finding their spots early, spilling out of the edges of the field. Total attendance was the largest in program history at 3,200.
“Everything we’ve worked so hard on all season, all the conversations we’ve had, every practice, they’ve just grown and blossomed into even more amazing hockey players than I could have imagined but even greater leaders and people and student-athletes in general,” Matson said.
— Cameron Hayes Fardy ’23