On Erin Matson’s Instagram, her graduation post from UNC-Chapel Hill and her head coaching selection post for the UNC field hockey team sit right next to each other.
The type-A personality 22-year-old has always been worried about the next steps in her life — where she’d go to college, when she’d get married, how many kids she’d have. The announcement of her head coaching position might have come as a shock to her future plans, not just because she’s freshly graduated, but because many believed — even Matson did, this November — that she would be playing for the U.S. National team for the foreseeable future.
So, why did Matson stand out from the bunch for the UNC selection committee? Why is she the one for the job?
I spent three years covering Matson — this past season as a beat reporter on the team. It's not easy to replace a legendary coach at any school, especially the winningest one in college field hockey. But I think the woman, now the youngest coach in NCAA DI sports as far as we know, is the right choice. These are five reasons why.
1. Her knowledge of the Carolina brand
Karen Shelton was only 23 years old when she accepted the head coaching job at Carolina. Just a month before her 23rd birthday, Matson is in a similar situation. Of Shelton’s 10 national championships, the most in NCAA field hockey history, Erin has not only played, but scored, in four of them.
Matson is commonly compared to other legendary athletes bred at the University of North Carolina, most often, Jumpman himself. After she won her final national championship in November, Matson was pulled aside to recreate Michael Jordan’s iconic championship picture: she posed with a cigar perched in her mouth, holding up four fingers to represent her wins.
Style-wise, Matson has become the prime example of UNC’s brand of field hockey, which involves quick passing, swift stick movements and a lockdown defense. According to her coaches and teammates, Matson’s brain works at a higher speed than anyone else on the team, giving her an uncanny ability to see plays before they happen. This made her a valuable asset on the field, but her playmaking skills will only exceed expectations off of it. Matson has said that she is content to end her own playing career in favor of coaching her alma mater, as she feels it is her calling to give back to the field hockey community.
2. Her world-wide experience
Aside from her Carolina career, Matson boasts four appearances on the U.S. Women’s National Team (2015 U-19, 2016 U-21, 2021, 2022), five placements in the Pan American Games (2014, 2016, 2017, 2019, 2022) and a gold medal in the 2017 World League Semifinals. She has punched her ticket to play in almost every continent, including Germany, Canada, Australia and Chile. Her experience around the globe rounded her as a player and will help her as a coach to assist her own players in their worldwide travels during the offseason.
3. Her leadership qualities
In her final season at Carolina, Matson was named captain of the team alongside graduate back Meredith Sholder. From welcoming the first-year players to dinners at Franklin Street favorite 411 West Italian Cafe to speaking up during in-game circles before penalty corners, Matson was the humble, respected leader-coach during her fifth season. Shelton said that under Matson and Sholder’s leadership, the team was drama-free throughout the season. In a recent interview, Matson said that she is grateful the team is already accustomed to her style of leadership, values and work ethic and that she looks forward to coaching the players she once had as teammates. Right now, instead of prioritizing herself entering the coaching world, Matson said that she aims to focus on her players, giving them a home for their time at UNC and setting them up for success for next season.
4. Her ability to recruit
Growing up, Matson mounted two posters in her basement that she practiced in, which represented her goals for herself as a player: the U.S. National Field Hockey team at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2012 games. Matson exceeded these goals, becoming the youngest player ever to join the U.S. National Team at 16 years old. With her international experience, as well as being a three-time recipient of the Honda Sport Award and being named one of the top 10 athletes in ACC history by ACC Network in 2021, Matson has indeed posterized herself.
She was even included in a meme of UNC's Mount Rushmore, featuring Dean Smith, Michael Jordan and Mia Hamm.
Smith, Jordan, Matson, Hamm@erinmatsonn secures her place on the UNC Mt. Rushmore after four national titles, five ACC championships, a record of 99-8, and many more awards. Legendary doesn't begin to describe it.#GoHeels #smsports pic.twitter.com/7yQ6C4SsQ1— Dakota Moyer (@DakotaMoyer) November 22, 2022
Because of her success as a player and the accolades she has raked in with both UNC and the U.S. National Team, coupled with her young age and relatability, Matson will be a fierce recruiter for the program as the face many young field hockey players recognize.
5. She's navigated NIL
Matson is one of the most prominent faces of American field hockey and has signed with local and nationwide businesses. She worked with a sports communication class in the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media last year to create her own brand: ONE. Matson created a website, shirts, stickers and flyers, which circulated the UNC campus during her final two years as a Tar Heel. With these experiences, Matson has an excellent handle on how to capitalize on branding, a valuable skill to have as a coach in this climate of collegiate-level sports.
Will she coach her team to another undefeated season next year? Will she be respected by fans and other coaches alike? Will her position of authority automatically click for her former teammates?
The UNC selection committee obviously saw a bright light in the player that sported No. 1 throughout her playing career, and the facts tell us that she's qualified for the role.
In this new role, Matson will need to prove that she's the one all over again.