NSJ 2022 Athlete of the Year: Tar Heels’ Erin Matson finishes unprecedented run with 4th title

The UNC field hockey player has piled up award after award during her field hockey career

UNC field hockey's Erin Matson, pictured in 2021, closed out her career with her fifth ACC Player of the Year award and four national titles, including scoring the game-winning goal in the championship game this season. (Photo courtesy of UNC Athletic Communications)

Few college athletes in history are as decorated in their sport as UNC field hockey forward Erin Matson.

The senior scored the game-winning goal in the Nov. 20 championship game to lead the Tar Heels to their 10th national championship in field hockey and add to her accolades, which include four national titles, five ACC titles, being named ACC Player of the Year five times, and winning the Honda Award for national player of the year three times.

She is UNC’s all-time leader in goals (137) and points (337) while ranking third all-time in NCAA history for each category.

Matson is also the ACC’s all-time leading scorer in both goals and points and is the only five-time conference player of the year for any sport in the ACC’s history. She is also North State Journal’s 2022 Athlete of the Year.

“It’s absolutely fair to include her with the all-time greats,” said UNC coach Karen Shelton to GoHeels.com. “In my opinion, and I’ve been doing this for more than 40 years and have seen all the greats play, she is the Michael Jordan of field hockey.”

The praise of a player’s coach may ring hollow to some outsiders, but when they come from the winningest coach in collegiate field hockey history, they carry plenty of clout.

Matson has accumulated other-worldly numbers during her Tar Heels career, but she has also shown time and again that she is dynamic in the clutch, a trait exhibited by the greatest of the great. She did it one final time in the national championship game against Northwestern, scoring the game-winning goal with just 1:19 remaining on the clock to again power UNC to victory.

“Erin has the gift of fury,” Shelton said to GoHeels.com. “When she plays, she is just relentless, and the madder she gets, the better she plays. She just plays her heart out. Technically, she has all the skills. She can do an upright reverse, backhand, forehand, can tap it in out of the air, throw it over the top. But she does them at a high level and at the right time.”

Matson has long been regarded as a prodigy in the sport, just the second player — along with Katie Bam in 2007 — to be named to the U.S. National Team at the age of 16, and she has represented her country multiple times on the international stage.

First getting into the sport when she was 6 years old, the Pennsylvania native has made field hockey a part of her daily life since.

“I have always taken a lot of pride in the fundamentals and not getting bored with the simple stuff, where I think a lot of other players want to do the flashy and exciting things,” Matson said to GoHeels.com. “They don’t understand you can’t do that if you aren’t a complete master at the simple things. That has helped me because in games I can just whip out a cool move that I never practiced but was a combination of all these skills I’ve practiced over and over again.”

It’s that commitment to the craft that has allowed Matson to reach such lofty ranks within the sport. Many scoff at the notion, thinking there has to be more to the secret of skill than just hard work, but it’s hardly ever the case that there is something else hidden beneath the surface.

“Looking back at freshman year Erin, I’m like, ‘How did we get here?’” Matson told the ACC Network. “But it’s a lot more boring and simple than people think. We practice hard and I tried to be a good leader, and the girls rallied around it.”

Simple, yet effective.

“We’ve won four nattys in the past five years, and three of them have been undefeated,” Matson said in a UNC Athletics video. “It’s remarkable to think back on what we’ve done and everything and to finish it just how we started, together, is something a lot of people don’t get to talk about and reflect upon.”

Matson knew that Chapel Hill was the place for her almost immediately when she first toured the campus, and after a long and prosperous five-year career, she’s carved out a place for herself among the Tar Heels greats, one of the best to ever grace the sport.

“Just being here and ending it on a high,” Matson said on the Carolina Insider Podcast, “there isn’t another way to go out.”

2021 Athlete of the Year

2020 Athlete of the Year

2019 Athlete of the Year

2018 Athlete of the Year