From star to in charge: UNC picks Matson as next field hockey coach

The recently graduated Tar Heels star, was chosen as Karen Shelton’s successor despite being just age 22

After leading the Tar Heels to four national championships as a player, Erin Matson was named the successor to coach Karen Shelton at age 22. (Jeffrey A. Camarati / Courtesy of UNC)

Just two months removed from winning her fourth national championship title and only one month after graduating, Tar Heels field hockey star Erin Matson is adding another major milestone to her resume: head coach.

UNC announced Jan. 31 that the 22-year-old Matson would be taking over the reins of the Tar Heels field hockey program following the retirement of legendary coach Karen Shelton in December.


Shelton, who headed the program for 42 years, led UNC to 25 ACC championships and 10 NCAA titles, leaving some pretty big shoes to fill.

“She was the reason it was so successful,” Matson said of her former coach. “So there’s going to be things that I adopt and keep. We’re not coming in with a ton of change and bossing people around. It’s not necessary.

“We have a winning way and I’m planning on keeping it that way, but it’s exciting to look at areas I can impact, things we can tweak, modernizing some things, making them more relatable especially to the younger recruits and generations and everything while, of course, respecting the boundaries of this new normal.”

Perhaps the biggest reason UNC is willing to roll the dice on someone so young is the similarities between Shelton and Matson.

A former player herself, Shelton won three NCAA championships with West Chester State compared to Matson’s four with UNC, and she was a three-time recipient of the Honda Award as the nation’s top player, an honor she also shares with Matson, before being named the Tar Heels coach at the age of 23.

“I don’t think there’s anybody else that can be a better mentor,” Matson said. “Obviously over 42 years, her entire resume and what she’s done. She built this program from the ground up, and it’s more so just exciting to see what more we can do. We have a very good relationship and it’s been so amazing to know her for so much of my life. It’s funny to see all the similarities between us, like the competitiveness, the hired at a young age, even the Honda Award, minor details and broadscale stuff.”

Matson’s transition is one of the most unique in all of college sports. To be the head coach of a team you were playing on just a couple of months prior is almost unheard of and surely puts additional pressure on the newly named coach.

“It’s a very different and unique situation,” she said. “I’ve told the girls that I’m not here to make it weird. I think laying down a transparent, stable, safe, inclusive environment with an open-door policy is best. We have glass doors throughout this building, and there’s a reason they’re there.

“A hurdle is just figuring out those boundaries, though, both for me with the staff and me with the girls. Going through this transition … any transition has change and a wide range of emotions. So understanding all of the different players — which I have an upper hand on since I’ve known them for a pretty long time and probably know some things about them that I probably shouldn’t — but just learning how to manage that and setting those boundaries and respecting them both ways.”

The decision wasn’t one that Matson made lightly, as she stated she had been approached about the choice well before Shelton even announced her retirement.

“The season was interesting,” she said. “I am very good at compartmentalizing. I’ve had to do it my whole life. There were definitely more pressing matters at the time, but it definitely wasn’t something that the application opened and I was like, ‘Oh this would be fun,’ because that would definitely be a red flag.

“There were conversations that, plain and simple, couldn’t be had, and I couldn’t act on things. But it was more so just talking to who I needed to talk to to know that if this was something that we wanted to pursue, this was how my life was going to change and this is what needed to happen and stuff. So when the interview process started and the application opened, we didn’t have to waste time.”

Despite all the challenges, Matson is taking on the role with confidence, and a big part of that belief comes from the support systems around her from the field hockey staff to the broader UNC system.

“I’m the kind of person where if I’m getting myself into something, it’s all in, all my energy,” she said. “Whatever it takes. Leaning on the support system around me which Carolina provides insanely well along with my family. I know I’m the best person for this role. I know the ins and outs of the program, I’ve had experience and I know how to coach and win, I know the girls, the staff. I also understand what it means to be Carolina. What it means to be UNC field hockey and how to honor that and appreciate it and never forgetting where we came from.”

And while things may seem different for Matson, some things will remain the same.

The love she has for her teammates — who are now her players — the logo on the field and the color Carolina Blue.

“I know that I could never put on orange or red or any other color and preach, ‘Come here because it’s the best school in the country!’” she said. “I couldn’t because it’d be a lie. And I’m biased, but that’s fine. There was never a thought of, ‘Let’s do this somewhere else.’ It was kind of like, ‘This is it, and if it doesn’t work out, I’ll be OK and figure it out. We all adapt as humans.’

“But I’m glad that’s not the case and I’m super excited for this. I’m happy it’s Carolina and I wouldn’t want it any other way.”