By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina’s season of redemption is off to an impressive start in the fifth and final season for all-everything forward Erin Matson — field hockey’s answer to Charlie Justice, Michael Jordan, Phil Ford or Mia Hamm.
Losing is alien to the program, and the Tar Heels dealt with an uncommon share of that last season.
No. 2 UNC continued to put that behind it Friday, moving to 3–0 with its third win over a ranked team, this one a 4–3 ACC-Ivy Challenge win over No. 13 Princeton in their home opener at Karen Shelton Stadium.
In no surprise, Matson led the way with two goals and an assist. Princeton (0–1) stayed in the game on corners, and UNC had to sweat one last corner in the final seconds.
A 13–7 finish with more defeats than the previous four seasons combined and a first-round NCAA tournament exit were uncharacteristic for UNC’s program. The Heels went 45–1 in winning the previous three national championships to boost the program’s total to nine.
“We definitely left last season a little too early,” said Matson, a four-time first-team All-American who was voted one of 10 greatest female athletes in ACC history. “It was one that stung. No one likes that feeling, especially with all the success we’ve had the years before. It was kind of like a ‘what is going on’ type thing. It’s definitely another chance for us to put a statement out, set a tone, show everybody you know who the dominant program is.”
Neither Matson nor Shelton was familiar with a season like 2021.
“We weren’t satisfied with what happened last year,” said Shelton, in her 42nd season. “We didn’t ever get in a very good rhythm. We had a bad draw; we had some issues. It wasn’t a typical year for us.
“We know we have some great young talent, some mature players,” Shelton said. “We think that this is a new and different season, and we want to just reach our potential.”
Carolina again has a challenging schedule. After the next three games against unranked opponents, every opponent after that is ranked after the Tar Heels faced three ranked teams to start the season.
Freshman Ashley Sessa, who added an assist Friday to give her seven points, has been a big boost this season.
Shelton said that her team has great potential but isn’t there yet.
“I love coaching this team. They’re not perfect,” Shelton said. “They make mistakes, but they’re young kids, and they’re learning.”
Does UNC have the talent to win another national title?
“We hope to be one of the teams that are fighting for it at the end,” Shelton said “I think that’s the standard for our program. We want to get to a Final Four.”
It sure helps to have one of the greatest players in the history of the sport.
“She’s a joy to coach,” Shelton said of Matson. “I’m going to enjoy every practice that she’s still here and trying to get her to get even better than she is. She’s pretty darn good, but she can still get better.”
Already the program’s all-time leader in goals (113) and points (283), Matson is nine behind Katelyn Falgowski’s record of 63 assists.
Matson admitted that she got a little emotional while the starting lineups were announced for her last home opener.
“It’s a weird, bittersweet feeling,” Matson said. “But, again, just trying to stay present. We get another season to do this in front of our fans and everyone and our families. So, it’s awesome. But it’s also starting to seem really real.”
A come-from-behind win against Princeton in this same event in 2019 helped UNC gain momentum toward an unbeaten title season.
No comeback was needed this time, as UNC never trailed after freshman Ryleigh Heck’s goal in the game’s third minute.
After Princeton (0–1) tied on Sammy Popper’s penalty-corner goal in the fourth minute, Matson’s score gave UNC the lead for good in the seventh minute.
Matson, from the left side of the goal mouth, fed sophomore midfielder Lisa Slinkert for a goal in the 26th minute. It was a 3–2 UNC lead at halftime after another penalty-corner goal from the Tigers, this one from Beth Yeager, in the 28th minute.
“They stifled our attack,” Shelton said. “They were able to defend us and keep us out of the circle. I give them credit; they made us work for everything, I was delighted to get the goals that we did, and Erin Matson came through in the clutch when we needed it.”
After getting 13 corners in the first two games, UNC didn’t get the first of three until midway through the fourth quarter. Matson made the Tigers pay by rocketing in a goal off the third corner in the 57th minute off of a Sessa assist.
“They capitalized on their corners. We also gave them too many opportunities to get corners,” Matson said. “I think, as a team, they defended really well. I think we completely dominated when it came to possession. They put their entire team behind the ball, and then when they did get opportunities, they capitalized.”
Princeton cut it to a one-goal game on Davidson Prin’s penalty stroke in the 59th minute after the Tigers pulled their goalkeeper with a minute left.
NOTES: No. 9 Louisville beat Penn 4–1 in Friday’s first game. … On Sunday, Louisville faces Princeton at Shelton Stadium at 11 a.m., followed by Carolina’s game with Penn at 1:30 (ACC Network Extra), then plays six of the following seven games on the road. … Starter Abigail Taylor, a sophomore, and freshman Kylie Walbert again split time at goalkeeper, each playing one half. Walbert made a nice second-half save on a penalty corner. … UNC leads the all-time series with Princeton 14–3 and has won the last nine meetings. … Carolina is 42–2 in Shelton Stadium, which opened in 2018.
No. 2 UNC 4, No. 13 Princeton 3
|26||Friday||5–1||No. 8 Michigan||Winston-Salem||1–0|
|28||Sunday||3–2 (OT)||No. 3 Iowa||Winston-Salem||2–0|
|2||Friday||4–3||No. 9 Princeton||Home||3–0|
|16||Friday||3–0||No. 5 Louisville||Louisville, Ky.||7–0, |
|23||Friday||2–0||No. 17 Wake Forest||Home||8–0, |
|2||Sunday||1 p.m.||No. 14 Liberty||Lynchburg, Va.|
|7||Friday||4 p.m.||No. 16 Boston College||Newton, Mass.|
|9||Sunday||1 p.m.||No. 11 Connecticut||Storrs, Conn.||FloSports|
|14||Friday||3 p.m.||No. 13 Syracuse||Home||ACCNX|
|21||Friday||4 p.m.||No. 7 Virginia||Home||ACCNX|
|23||Sunday||2 p.m.||No. 10 Saint Joseph’s||Home||ACCN|
|29||Saturday||Noon||No. 20 Duke||Durham|
Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications