NSJ College Team of the Year 2019: Tar Heels field hockey caps unbeaten season with 2nd straight title

North Carolina, which hasn’t lost in two years, defeated Princeton 6-1 in the championship game

Members of the North Carolina field hockey team celebrate after winning their second straight national title with a 6-1 win over Princeton on Nov. 24 in Winston-Salem. (Jeffrey A. Camarati / Courtesy of UNC)

When you talk about women’s sports dynasties at North Carolina, soccer is usually the first thing that comes to mind.

But while coach Anson Dorrance’s record-setting program is the gold standard for its sport with 21 national championships, including nine in a row from 1986-94, it’s been seven years since the women’s soccer team won its last title.

These days, it’s a different group of Tar Heels that’s collecting most of the hardware.

On Nov. 26 in Winston-Salem, coach Karen Shelton’s field hockey team routed Princeton 6-1 to complete its second straight undefeated national championship season. It was a performance that helped earn the Tar Heels recognition from the North State Journal’s sports staff as the North Carolina College Team of the Year for 2019.

“It’s done one game at a time,” Shelton told GoHeels.com after winning her eighth national title, ranking her second among all Division I coaches. “We don’t really think about the streak. I think it provides motivation for our opponents, but we’ve faced that before. Every team wants to beat us. We’d rather be the hunted.”

The Tar Heels should be used to that role by now. They were among the nation’s elite even before their current 46-match winning streak and two-year hold on the national championship trophy.

The North Carolina Tar Heels field hockey team crowds around the NCAA trophy after beating Princeton 6-1 in the 2019 championship game in Winston-Salem. (Jeffrey A. Camarati / Courtesy of UNC)

UNC has been to the field hockey Final Four in each of the past 11 years, although for a while there, it had trouble getting over the top and winning the final game. It has five national runner-up finishes during that stretch.

The most heartbreaking close call of all came in the 2017 national semifinals when Shelton’s team fell in a penalty shootout to UConn — a loss that proved to be the springboard for the back-to-back titles that followed.

“After the 2017 season, when we said we were never going to lose another game, we didn’t mean over the next two years,” senior forward Catherine Hayden told GoHeels.com. “That was kind of just about the year after.”

But the Tar Heels, led by Hayden and fellow seniors Marissa Creatore, Megan DuVernois, Feline Guenther, goalie Alex Halpin, Yentl Leemans, Ellen Payne and Ali Rushton, went ahead and ran the table anyway.

Their 2019 success, however, was anything but a sure thing.

Not only did the Tar Heels lose six seniors from the previous year’s championship team, including ACC and NCAA Tournament MVP Ashley Hoffman, but they also lost the only returning starter on defense — Cassie Sumfest — to a season-ending injury in the spring.

They overcame that adversity with a resilience that helped them win several close games to start the season, along with the prolific offensive production of sophomore Erin Matson.

The nation’s top scorer with 33 goals and 15 assists for 81 points, she was recently named National Player of the Year by the National Field Hockey Coaches Association, making her eligible to have her No. 1 jersey retired.

Matson was especially good during the NCAA Tournament, a four-game stretch in which she netted nine goals to lead North Carolina to wins against Stanford, Iowa, ACC rival Boston College and Princeton.

Although the championship-clinching 6-1 victory against the Tigers wasn’t close on the scoreboard, UNC did have a few nervous moments when it fell behind by a goal just 2:13 into the game.

It was the third time in as many NCAA Tournament games that the Tar Heels had trailed. But just as they did in an earlier 2-1 win against Iowa and a 6-3 victory against Boston College, they didn’t panic.

Creatore tied the score 14 minutes later, starting a barrage of six unanswered goals that included two by Matson, two by Eva Smolenaars and a late exclamation point by Hannah Griggs.

The victory made UNC only the second team in NCAA history, joining Old Dominion twice, to win two straight titles with consecutive undefeated seasons. This one was celebrated by a mostly Carolina-blue clad crowd of 1,466.

“In the middle of the game, everyone just stopped and looked at the stands and the sea of Carolina blue was something that was really special,” Matson told GoHeels.com “Those little things today made a difference.”