Winning national championships has become a common occurrence for the North Carolina field hockey team.
Sunday’s 4-3 overtime victory against Michigan was the Tar Heels’ third in a row and ninth overall, tying them with Old Dominion for the most in NCAA history.
This one, however, was different from the others.
The fact that it was earned in Chapel Hill, in front of a supportive home crowd in a new stadium named in honor of coach Karen Shelton, made this title just a little more special than the others.
“We did it on the big stage and on our home field,” Shelton said after the dramatic win. “We knew it would be a bit of an advantage to have the chance to play at home. We didn’t have to travel, we’re comfortable on this field, we had a home crowd.
“There was a lot going for us, and Michigan almost overcame all those things. I’m just proud of our kids for hanging on, performing well and getting the goal when we needed to in overtime.”
Erin Matson, the nation’s leading scorer, got the title-clinching goal just under six minutes into the extra period.
The junior forward took a pass from teammate Eva Smolenaars off a penalty corner, started to her right then reversed field to the right before firing a backhand shot past Wolverines goalie Anna Spieker and being mobbed by her Tar Heels teammates.
It was her second goal of the game and 29th of the season, and it gave UNC its first on-campus national title since Mia Hamm led the school’s women’s soccer team to a 6-0 win against George Mason in 1993.
“We never practice going on my reverse, but I did it,” Matson said of her game-winning shot selection. “I knew to keep it flat, and it just worked.
“It was a full team effort. It was great and we were able to celebrate after, although I did not like being at the bottom of the dogpile. Me and (freshman back Ciana) Riccardo were screaming, ‘Get off! Get off!’ Now we look back and laugh.”
UNC (19-1) also got goals from Bryn Boylan and Mia Leonhardt but couldn’t hold onto a 3-1 lead after giving up a pair of late third-quarter goals.
Despite having lost all five previous championship appearances decided in overtime, Shelton and her Tar Heels remained confident heading into the 7-on-7 sudden-death extra period.
“We’ve been in a lot of pressure situations in 7v7, we know what we’re looking for and we try to wait for those opportunities to open up,” said the UNC coach, whose team was undefeated in seven overtime games during the split 2020-21 season.
“It could have gone either way. It was a tough, tough battle, probably the toughest we’ve played in a long time.”
Although Sunday’s victory was earned in 2021, the prize for winning is officially considered the 2020 national title.
It put a happy exclamation point on a difficult season disrupted by COVID-19.
The Tar Heels got started last September when the ACC decided to play a conference-only schedule in the fall despite the NCAA’s decision to move its field hockey and soccer championships to the spring.
They played 11 games in 2020, finishing with a 4-2 win against Louisville in the ACC Tournament final. Then, after taking four months off, the Tar Heels picked back up in March without missing a beat.
“It was a challenge for every team,” Matson said. “Everyone involved put in a lot of hard work and a lot of dedication to make sure that we could keep each other’s backs and know that we had 100% trust and support throughout the team.
“Even though in the third quarter we had a little dip, we just stuck together, played Carolina hockey and came out on top. That just goes to show that the whole season, fall and spring, we stuck together working towards a common goal.”
It’s an accomplishment senior goalkeeper Amanda Hendry called “surreal.”
“I want to hope for the best, but I’m a pessimist at heart, so every single time I come out I’m like, ‘There’s no way.’ And then it happens again,” said Hendry, one of several UNC players to have been on all three championship teams since 2018. “I still can’t believe it. I still can’t believe we won the first one, let alone this one.”