North Carolina’s Field Hockey Dynasty

The Tar Heels won their third straight national championship this past weekend.

By Savannah Moore

The North Carolina Tar Heels run one of the best field hockey programs in the country. The team’s 2021 National Championship victory is their ninth, tied for the most in NCAA field hockey history. The program now boasts two separate dynasties, winning three straight titles from 1995–1997 and 2018–2020. Both of the dynastic teams were led by Coach Karen Shelton. The former Olympian has been the Tar Heels’ head coach since 1981. She was prepared to retire after the 2017 season, but someone’s arrival changed her mind.

At the beginning of the 2018 season the Tar Heels were facing something unfamiliar to them: Losing, but not in terms of their overall win-loss record. UNC was still a heavy favorite in the NCAA Field Hockey Tournament, but they were facing an eight-year championship drought. It seemed as if one of the most dominant field hockey programs of all time just couldn’t win the big one anymore—until top recruit Erin Matson committed to UNC. Matson was already at the top of the field hockey world, becoming only the second 16-year-old to ever receive an invitation from the U.S National Team. 

Erin Matson 2020 headshot University of North Carolina Field Hockey Men’s Basketball Museum Chapel Hill, NC Wednesday, August 5, 2020
(SOURCE: University of North Carolina athletics)

As soon as Matson arrived in Chapel Hill, it was clear that the hype was real. As a freshman, Matson led the Tar Heels in total points, goals, and assists. She was named ACC Offensive Player of the Year, and scored the game-clinching goal in the 2018 National Championship to complete the Tar Heels 23–0 season. With the best player in the country on the pitch and the ever-steady presence of Coach Shelton on the sidelines, it was hard to picture the Tar Heels losing anytime soon.

In the 2019 season Matson managed to get even better, leading the nation in points per game and earned both ACC and National Player of the Year honors in her sophomore campaign. To the surprise of no one, the Tar Heels easily defeated Princeton 6–1 in the 2019 National Championship, completing their second straight undefeated season.

After the 2020 season was canceled due to COVID-19, the NCAA decided to crown a 2020 champion in the spring of 2021. There were lofty expectations for the Tar Heels, as usual, but then the unthinkable happened. North Carolina lost in only the second game of the regular season against Louisville. The team’s 47-game win streak was the longest in Division I sports at the time, and just like that it was gone. Most perceived North Carolina to be an unstoppable force, but they now looked beatable. Their vulnerability persisted throughout the regular season as the Tar Heels found themselves going down to the wire on several occasions.

North Carolina’s Antonio Williams (24) dives into the end zone for a touchdown against Pittsburgh during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Over the previous two seasons the Tar Heels only played two games that were forced into overtime; they played eight during the 2020 season. Suddenly, the dominant champions had become cardiac kids. Even though the games were more nerve-wracking than before, the outcome was similar. North Carolina went 19–1, Erin Matson racked up more accolades, and the Tar Heels were back in the national title game for the third straight year. This time they would have home field advantage, as the game would be held on Chapel Hill’s campus at Karen Shelton Stadium.

In the title game, the Tar Heels faced a hungry Michigan Wolverines team. The Wolverines were seeking just their second national championship in program history, and at first it seemed like they were on their way. Michigan quickly scored the first goal of the evening, but then the Tar Heels offense caught fire, and they rattled off three straight goals. A 3–1 lead would probably mean the game was out of reach in seasons prior, but this was the new Cardiac Carolina Tar Heels. Michigan rallied late, tying the match and forcing overtime. 

Field Hockey utilizes sudden-death overtime rules, meaning whichever team scored a goal first would win the title. Unsurprisingly, Coach Shelton chose to put the game into the hands of the reigning ACC Offensive Player of the Year. Erin Matson’s goal in the 66th minute delivered North Carolina their third straight national title.

2021 Field Hockey Champions. (Photo by Jeffrey Camarati/GoHeels.com)

With Matson returning for her senior season and Coach Shelton still walking the sidelines the Tar Heels will next look to achieve the first four-peat in NCAA Field Hockey history. 

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