Matson's journey as UNC's 23-year-old field hockey coach reaches the brink of another NCAA title

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — Erin Matson crouched near midfield, intently watching North Carolina’s field hockey players run drills creating a hive of activity near the goal.

A year ago at this time, Matson was among that on-ball chaos, the decorated star of a team nearing another national championship. Now she's a first-time head coach, a 23-year-old taking over for the winningest coach in the sport’s history and leading players who were previously teammates.

Pressure? Yep. And she’s good with all of it.

“I live by the quote: pressure is a privilege,” Matson said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I think the ability to be in a situation like this, I’m grateful for that, and I appreciate that.”

Matson’s remarkable playing career has already made her a sizable name in field hockey. She’s a three-time national player of the year. A four-time national champion, three in unbeaten seasons. The career scoring leader in Atlantic Coast Conference and NCAA Tournament history. And a U.S. national team member dating to when she was 17.

She’s adding to that legacy from the sideline. Her Tar Heels (16-3) won a seventh straight ACC title and are the NCAA Tournament’s No. 1 seed hosting this weekend’s final rounds, first against Virginia in Friday’s national semifinals.

“It’s been crazy and wild, and never-ending,” Matson said.

“It's also been exactly what I want. ... It’s not just like a normal new coaching position, getting acclimated to Carolina or whatever. I know how this place runs. But I’m learning all that it takes to run a program, to be a coach, as well as doing the actual work to be successful with it. It’s been a lot, but I wouldn’t change anything about it.”

Matson’s sudden move from star player to coach became a national story from the moment she was named successor to retired 10-time NCAA champion Karen Shelton, a hiring coming a month after her graduation. That meant added attention and pressure for one of the sport's top programs, felt by Matson down to her staff and players.

Along the way, she’s experienced the learning curve of a first-time coach.

There’s being on the other side of recruiting pitches with prospects and parents. Managing a program budget. Setting practice schedules. Even disciplining players, some of whom returned from last year’s perfect season when she was co-captain.

“She’s had so much attention, attention’s not going to bother her,” said UNC football coach Mack Brown, a College Football Hall of Famer who gave a pregame talk to Matson’s team before their NCAA opener. “She’s so competitive and so tough. She’s not going to worry about whether somebody thinks a 23-year-old is old enough to do this or not, whether she was ready for the playoffs.

“None of that matters to her. She’s into winning.”

She immediately impressed Brown when she called last year to meet and pick his brain with thorough and detailed coaching questions.

“I knew she’s the Michael Jordan of women’s field hockey but I had never met her and never seen her play,” Brown said.

As Matson pursued the job, athletics director Bubba Cunningham admitted it was initially “an idea that you probably do have to sit with for a while to say, ‘OK, am I really going to consider this?’”

“There’s a maturity level to her personality that gives you a sense of confidence,” Cunningham said. “She has a sense of purpose. She’s obviously driven and focused. She just is a very thoughtful and very deliberate person that is always prepared."

Along the way, there was outside curiosity about the coaching change, then about how she’d handle the in-season work. Matson shrugged it off.

“There’s always going to be people who talk,” Matson said. “The day I was hired, there was a guy on Twitter: ‘She’s not even old enough to rent a car right now.’ It’s like, ’All right dude, if that’s the biggest worry you have, I think we’re in a good spot. There is Uber, and I will figure it out because I’m resourceful.

“But it’s just all of those people talking. It only motivates everyone, not just me. But these (players) are protective, too. They want to prove they can be part of something special, that hasn’t been done before.”

One of the more challenging changes was Matson and players having to rewire their relationship, down to Matson opting for a second cellphone so players can contact her officially as their coach.

“I have lived with them, I have gone out with them, I know everything about them,” Matson said. “And I felt right when I was hired, they didn’t need to be texting me, ‘Hey Erin, can we sit down and have a talk in an individual meeting and watch clips?’ or ‘Hey, what time are we practicing today?’ But then scrolling up a little bit and seeing things that were on the friend side.

“I felt that was just part of the natural side of things, to set the boundaries and respect the boundaries.”

Sixth-year back Romea Riccardo is one of those former teammates.

“Right away she did a great job of kind of separating herself from us,” she said. “We respected her right away. We always respected her as a player. But now obviously it’s a little bit different when she’s our coach and our person that we kind of look up to as a mom figure.”

One way or the other, Matson’s first thrown-in-the-deep-end season will be over by the weekend. It could end with her hoisting another trophy as before.

From there, it will be time to turn her focus toward Year 2. This is, after all, still a beginning.

“Trust me, I have tons to learn, every year is not going to be perfect," Matson said. "This year, we’re not done yet. There’s still so much to do. But hey, this isn’t as crazy as maybe some of the rumors made it out to be.”


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