By Tim Crothers ’86
She started out wearing the littlest number because she was always the littlest.
If you were scouting a grade school field hockey game, she was the one. If you were watching SportsCenter and suddenly among all of those highlight dunks they showed a field hockey goal, she was the one. If you noticed a player giddily hopping up and down unable to suppress her tears in the waning seconds of a national championship game and totally unaware that all of her teammates were still grinding, she was the one.
If you’re wondering who that is sitting alone in Karen Shelton Stadium, tanning her pale Pennsylvanian skin and dreaming of an Olympic gold medal someday, she is the one. If any player could single-handedly lure her legendary coach back off the ledge of retirement, she is the one.
Because of all the players vying to be the best in America, she is the one.
The number has helped define Erin Matson throughout her career. She has both worn it and pursued it with such relentless determination that anything else just wouldn’t look right. It suits her. Modest yet imposing. A pillar with a stable base.
Jill Matson began playing field hockey in high school in New Jersey because the coach needed a goalie and Jill was athletic and willing. She played the sport for five years, so when a friend asked Jill about carpooling their 6-year-old daughters to a beginner field hockey clinic in 2006, she thought, Why not?
“When Jill told me she was taking Erin to try field hockey, I remember getting on the internet and looking for a left-handed stick because Erin was a lefty hitter in softball,” her father, Brian, recalled. “Eventually I figured out that there’s no such thing as a lefty stick. That’s how naïve I was.”
When Erin arrived that day at Paper Mill Park in Newark, Del., she was dressed in a pink tie-dye shirt and shin guards that stretched from above her knees to below her ankles. The coach at that clinic, former University of Delaware midfielder Terri Lotter, remembers that without any guidance, tiny Erin bent down into a textbook defensive posture. The turf was so unruly that Erin and her best friend, Antonia, could only manage to pass the ball a few feet between them.
“We were doing drills, and Antonia kept saying, ‘I hate this, my back hurts,’ ” Erin said. “I was like, ‘No, c’mon, it’s fun! Just bend with your legs.’ I had a blast, and I started to fall in love with field hockey.”
Lotter said: “By the time we started private lessons, I’d already seen that Erin was a unique talent. One day I asked her, ‘So, do you want to make it to the national team?’ Erin’s eyes lit up and she said, ‘Sure.’ I know it sounds crazy because she was 6, but I think she actually believed she could do it, and so did I. Thinking back on that gives me the chills.”
During one early session, Lotter noticed Erin’s natural swing on her backhand side, a result of hitting lefty in softball, and asked her to try a backhand flip into the goal. Erin nailed it on the first attempt. The “no-look reverse flick” would become one of Matson’s signature moves.
Brian admits he initially struggled to handicap his daughter’s talent level, until he was struck one day watching 7-year-old Erin at an indoor tournament. “She dribbled the ball from end to end and then cracked it in with a reverse hit. I remember that being my first time thinking, ‘Whoa, that kind of looked intentional.’ I knew I’d just seen something special.”
At home, Erin’s hockey training began in the kitchen, but that didn’t last long. “My parents would get so mad at me because I was ruining the hardwood floors, so I went to the basement. Down there I put holes in the wall and scratches all over the furniture, but they were OK with that. They used to tell me, ‘Those scratches are part of your journey.’ ”
The basement became her sanctuary. Brian built boards, hung netting and taped the outline of a goalie on the wall so Erin could practice shots, strokes, lifts and inserting for corners. Her favorite drill involved pulls, alternating the ball several feet from forehand to backhand. When she was 9, Brian filmed her executing 43 pulls in 30 seconds.
“She would go down there all the time at night to practice, and we’d hear tap, tap, tap for hours,” Jill said. “She was training like the pros do, but she was doing it as an 8-year-old.”
Erin mounted two posters: the U.S. national field hockey team at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2012 London Games. “Whenever I took a break from my pulls,” she said, “I’d be staring at those girls and wanting to be on a poster like that and represent the USA.”
Also an accomplished junior softball and basketball player, Matson says she chose field hockey because the inveterate planner in her could envision a pathway to college and possibly beyond. It didn’t hurt that the Matsons’ basement was in the cradle of American field hockey in Chadds Ford, Pa., 15 miles down U.S. 1 from where another hockey prodigy had launched her career a few decades earlier. A girl named Karen Shelton, now Carolina’s 39-year head coach.
During Christmas break in 2009, Shelton returned to her roots in Pennsylvania, where one afternoon she watched her niece, Laura, play. Shelton stood on the sideline beside her brother, Greg, who pointed out one of Laura’s teammates for his sister to watch. The girl was a fourth grader, but she was dominating the game against older players. Greg sidled over to Brian Matson and asked if he and Jill would be interested in meeting his sister.
Field hockey has always pushed Erin to grow up fast, including one day when she was 10 and sitting at a table full of teenaged teammates. “The other kids started joking about Santa, and all of a sudden they looked over at Erin and she had this surprised look on her face,” Jill recalled.
“They were like ‘Oh my gosh, Erin, you know about Santa, right?’ ”
Erin faced an acceptance issue when thrust into an older group. “Once at a camp when she was very young, Erin was looking sad, and I asked her, ‘What’s wrong?’ ” Brian said. “She told me, ‘Dad, they don’t pass me the ball.’ I told her, ‘Yes, sweetheart, you’re the youngest one here so that’s going to happen, but when you do get it, do something special with it and then they’ll give you the ball more.’ ”
At age 9, Erin joined the WC Eagles, the best field hockey club in the country. She made the U.S. indoor national team at 12, where she was first issued the No. 1 jersey because of her diminutive size. That same summer, Shelton invited Erin and Laura to attend UNC field hockey camp, where the two competed against elite high school players. As a 16-year-old, Erin became the youngest player ever to join the full U.S. national team, playing alongside teammates in their 30s.
Having to carefully manage her time helped Erin mature quickly. Once during spring break, she took a Spanish test she knew she was going to miss for national team duty. She graduated a semester early from Unionville High to train for the 2018 World Cup, and three hours after her commencement that June she boarded a plane for matches in Argentina.
“My parents are both type A, so they’d always be helping me plan out what I need to do to take the next step,” Erin said. “I learned from them to keep a level head.”
Matson always has been driven more by team success than her own.
“I remember Erin playing in a feeder tournament for the national team where the whole idea is to showcase yourself,” Jill said. “Well, Erin is out there passing and passing and passing. She didn’t care about scoring. She wanted to win. Afterward we went up to her and said, ‘Uh, honey, you understand that it makes no difference here whether you win or lose, right?’ ”
“But I wanted to win,” Erin replied. “My team won, right?”
It is no coincidence that Matson’s team has won every field hockey game since she arrived at UNC. If you’re counting, that’s 46 in a row.
In her first game as a Tar Heel in 2018, wearing jersey No. 1, Matson scored a goal and dished out two assists in a 5-1 victory over Michigan, the first signal that she would be an unselfish leader.
The rookie forward completed the season with 20 goals and 19 assists, leading the team in both categories, while becoming just the second UNC freshman to earn first team All-America. Her most memorable goal occurred in the ACC Tournament final. On a penalty corner, Matson received an errant pass that forced her to turn her back to the goal, so she channeled that 6-year-old inventing new ways to score. She flipped a no-look reverse flick into the net. “It was one of those plays where it’s jaw-dropping for everybody,” Shelton said. “I was on the sideline thinking to myself, ‘Oh my, are you kidding me?’ ”
The next day Matson received a text from her father saying he’d seen the goal on SportsCenter’s Top Ten plays.
Matson was predictably modest: “It just kind of happened.”
Matson would go on to score four more goals in the NCAA Tournament, including the clincher in a 2-0 win over Maryland in the final. “I remember the last 10 seconds of the championship game just jumping up and down and then looking around and no one else was reacting, so I was like, ‘Oh, OK, I shouldn’t.’ And then the horn blew, and I was bawling. I’m a crier, and I love celebrating — hugs, screaming, all the girly stuff.”
Shelton says she planned to step down after winning that seventh national title in her 38th season as the Tar Heels’ coach until an incredulous coaching colleague questioned her: Why would you retire when you have Erin Matson on your team? Shelton couldn’t muster a credible answer and promptly signed a new three-year contract, just long enough to witness the entirety of Matson’s career.
In 2019, Matson produced 33 goals and 81 points, both ranking second in UNC history, despite missing the last three games of the regular season while she was at the Olympic qualifiers in India.
One of the closest calls in UNC’s second consecutive undefeated season came against Iowa in the NCAA quarterfinals. With the Tar Heels hanging onto a precarious 2-1 lead, Matson calmly dribbled out the game’s entire final minute with the Hawkeyes helpless to stop her, like it was just another pull drill in the basement.
She backed that up by scoring four goals in a 6-3 semifinal win over Boston College, tying the record for most goals in an NCAA semifinal or championship game. “They have the best player in Erin Matson who can just score goals, create goals, create a lot of havoc on the field,” Eagles coach Kelly Doton said after the match. “Certainly, we didn’t have an answer for her, as many teams don’t.”
Matson notched two more goals in a blowout 6-1 win over Princeton in the final.
“Erin is fast, uncanny stick skills, great passer, vocal leader and a ruthless competitor who loves to score,” Shelton said. “She’s a game-changer, somebody that the other team has to devote an enormous amount of attention to or they pay.”
Her former national team coach, Janneke Schopman, said: “There’s a reason why she scores so many goals. She understands the game better than almost anyone. I’ve seen players who can find space but they don’t have the skill to score. Others have the skill, but they don’t see the space. Erin has both, and that makes her a very special player at her age.”
Denise Zelenak, who coached Matson with the indoor national team, praises her poise under pressure. “Erin manipulates the game,” Zelenak said. “Her ability to see two and three steps into the future of a specific play is like a Jedi mind trick.”
In a shootout for the bronze medal at the 2014 Indoor Pan American Games in Uruguay, Zelenak chose 14-year-old Matson to decide the game. “When I called her name she just walked out there like this stone cold gunslinger. She wanted to have that role, and she finished, and we won. That’s something the U.S. team has always needed. Someone to believe in.”
Matson is no longer the littlest, but she’s still often among the youngest on her teams, and when older players pass her the ball, she has definitely learned how to do something special with it.
“There are times when she’s out there showing off her skills, and I find myself just standing there amazed and thinking ‘How does she do that?,’ ” UNC rising senior midfielder Eva Smolenaars said. “I have to remind myself that Erin is human. She has the same nervous feelings that I have before a game, but she knows how to use that as fuel. When she turns it on, it’s like she needs to score a goal, and there is nobody in college field hockey who can stop her.”
During her freshman year, Matson lived in Avery Dorm where her room overlooked Shelton Stadium. On many nights, Matson would sneak down to the field, where the lights stayed on until 10 p.m. She would grab a bucket of balls and retreat to her favorite corner of the field, which has boards that remind her of her basement at home, a wall her coaches have jokingly dubbed her “best friend at UNC.”
Smolenaars said she’s often the first player to arrive for practice and the last to leave. “I think what sets Erin apart is that she does a lot of work behind the scenes that no one knows about,” Smolenaars said. “She doesn’t talk about it. She just works her ass off. Even her own teammates don’t really know how much she practices.”
Matson said, “I enjoy it, and it makes me better. So why wouldn’t I want to do it?”
When those closest to Matson are asked to share a moment that sums her up, it’s illustrative how few of them recall a memory from on the field. “Erin is thankful yet mindful of things beyond the accolades and the game,” UNC associate head coach Grant Fulton said. “Whenever I message her, she always starts her reply by asking how my family is doing.”
Matson’s recent Instagram posts focus less on field hockey than on pretty food she’s cooked. She says she never ponders her status in the sport, which she understands may be an ingredient to her success. “I think humility is a huge part of it. I’ll admit I step on the field with confidence but also knowing that I’m just one player out there with a ton of other girls who affect the outcome.”
The airline lost all of Matson’s hockey equipment during her trip back from India last fall just days before UNC’s postseason began; athletes often are protective of, even superstitious about their gear. “We scrambled to order her new sticks, new shin guards, new mouthguard, new gloves, new shoes,” Jill said. “People were worried about Erin. Would she panic? She was not fazed one bit about using a stick for the first time in the ACC Tournament.” (It took Matson less than seven minutes to score with it.)
Matson credits her parents for keeping her grounded. Her dad said it was in her all along. “Growing up, I don’t believe Erin ever stopped to think to herself, ‘Hey, I might be kind of good at this game,’ ” Brian said. “She is just a typical kid who’s been given an atypical gift.”
You can count on one hand the times Tar Heels fans have had the privilege to witness an athlete who has a chance to become the best that ever was. Michael Jordan ’86. Mia Hamm ’94. Lawrence Taylor ’81, perhaps. If you’re forecasting who might be next, she is the one. If you’re curious about who was named 2019 National Player of the Year and just might be the first to win it three times since Karen Shelton did it at West Chester State, she is the one. If you’re wondering who Shelton acknowledges is already UNC field hockey’s GOAT after just two seasons, she is the one.
Erin Matson blushes when she hears that Zelenak calls her “Beethoven.” Matson pegs herself “a work in progress.” She insists that despite her success she is nowhere near satisfied with her game and doesn’t believe she ever will be. It’s easy to forget that she just turned 20 years old with so much time and desire to improve.
Matson grudgingly accepts that even she can’t plan everything. If she could, she’d be representing the United States at the Tokyo Olympics, but the national team failed to qualify. So she will continue to work alone at Shelton Stadium doing pulls and pulls and more pulls until the day she pulls herself onto one of those posters in her Pennsylvania basement. She says that when she finally reaches the Olympics she still plans to wear the littlest number because it has become part of her journey. “I do think the number one holds a bit of power. It gets the point across.”
Tim Crothers ’86, a lecturer in UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, is the author of three books and hundreds of stories for Sports Illustrated.