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Nov. 23, 2022 — An appreciation: Erin Matson, forward, University of North Carolina

One on an occasional series.

“A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but put it on a stand so that it gives light to all in the house.” (Matthew 5:14a-15)

Between 2016 and 2017, Erin Matson’s considerable light was hidden. She had scored 87 goals in her freshman and sophomore years at Kennett Square Unionville (Pa.), but had decided to train full-time with the W.C. Eagles club team and with the U.S. national team when it was housed at Spooky Nook.

She gave up her junior and senior seasons of scholastic hockey but her experiences during those two years were unlike anyone else in recent American field hockey history. She played for the U.S. senior women’s national team in various competitions including the Hockey World League, where she was able to score in a penalty shootout in a win over world power Germany.

Starting in 2018, however, Matson would be trading in her navy and red for navy and Carolina blue. She won two championships for the University of North Carolina in her freshman and sophomore seasons.

But then came a pair of events which could have extinguished Matson’s competitive fire. The first was the United States’ failure to qualify for the 2020 Olympics after losing to India by one goal on aggregate in two-match series.

And then came the global pandemic, which ended NCAA sport for the spring of 2020, postponed the Olympics to 2021, and threatened great damage to non-revenue sports at universities..

Matson and her UNC teammates were some of the only field hockey players to get meaningful games during the fall of 2020 as the Atlantic Coast Conference played a double round-robin season before playing a fall conference tournament. In the spring of 2021, the rest of Division aside from the Ivy League played a spring season. The ACC played a second round-robin season, followed by a winner-take-all final for the automatic berth from the league to the NCAA Division I championship.

Matson and her Tar Heels were able to win their way through this maze to get to the NCAA final against Michigan. In the longest NCAA season ever (255 days), Carolina was able to win a third straight NCAA title thanks to a spectacular Matson overtime goal.

This made UNC a favorite to win a fourth straight title in 2021. But part of the burden of having three straight national championships is receiving the best competition from every opponent on the schedule. UNC struggled to a 12-7 record before getting drawn against Northwestern in an NCAA opening round game. It was a game that Northwestern won 2-0, and it was the launching point for Northwestern’s 2021 national title run.

In 2022, Matson’s final season as a collegian, the Tar Heels went into the season focused. And in 20 games — all wins — Carolina played 1,264 minutes. The Heels trailed for just 55 of those minutes. And that’s against teams with not only some of the best talent from American secondary schools, but a foreign contingent that had as many as seven offshore athletes in their lineups at any one time.

Matson ended her career last Sunday as a four-time NCAA champion, the ACC’s all-time leading scorer, and the only five-time conference Player of the Year in any sport in the NCAA. And it’s likely that in the next few months, she’ll pick up the Honda Award for the national Division I Player of the Year.

I’m hoping that the light that she has been for thousands of younger players wanting to grow up to be like her will burn a few more years with the United States looking to qualify for the Paris Olympics in 2024.

And hopefully she’ll be healthy for a 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles. She could be that transformative figure in the sport that the average person will identify with as a champion.

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