Freshman First Team All-American. National Champion. Member of the U.S. National Field Hockey Team. Featured on SportsCenter with a Top 10 play. ACC Rookie of the Year and Offensive Player of the Year. The list goes on.
Erin Matson is only 19 years old and she has more field hockey accolades than you can fit in a trophy case. You would think with that kind of experience under her belt, her ego would match her status. But Matson is as humble as she is talented, learning from an early age to keep her ego in check.
“I kind of don’t like…like, this makes me uncomfortable, talking about myself,” Matson said with a laugh. “I guess it was learned from [my parents], they never would like really boast me up or anything. I guess I kind of learned from them to kind of keep a level head and not really be too cocky.”
She was born in Delaware but grew up in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, with her brother Sean and parents Jill and Brian. Her mother, a former field hockey player for Yale, introduced her to the sport when she was six.
“I was best friends with this girl in my grade and we went to this camp together when we were six,” Matson said. “I just sort of fell in love with it.”
That love grew into a passion for Matson, who continued playing on prestigious WC Eagles club team through her childhood and into adolescence. It was then that UNC field hockey coach Karen Shelton first watched her play by a stroke of luck. She was visiting her brother, and they went to watch Laura, her niece who played for the WC Eagles, at one of her games.
“My brother’s like saying, ‘You’ve got to see this other kid,” Shelton said. “She was in like fourth grade, and she was so good.”
From there, Shelton kept her eye on Matson as a potential recruit, keeping in touch with her and inviting her to the UNC summer field hockey camp with her niece.
“We got Erin interested in North Carolina from a very early age,” Shelton said. “We didn’t bring her here, but we offered her to come to camp, so she came to camp like in the sixth grade. She loved Carolina the moment she stepped on campus.”
Matson remembers the camp to be like any other kids’ summer camp with popsicles and slip ‘n slides, but also very field hockey-focused. She and Shelton’s niece were the youngest girls there by far, but their skill level classified them as elite players and qualified them to play among the older girls that the camp was originally marketed for.
Four years later, Matson committed to UNC in the tenth grade. The college recruitment process formally begins when a prospective athlete enters ninth grade, which means coaches cannot contact them, but athletes can contact coaches.
Matson knew that UNC was the right choice to prepare her for the rest of her career.
“I realized UNC was the place for me, because they could get me there, they could prepare me to be that player, [Coach Shelton] knows where I want to be, and I think it’s important to have people like that in your corner so they can push you and make you that player,” she said.
Before she got to UNC, though, she had the rest of high school to finish. After playing on her high school team for two years, she tried out for the indoor national team as a first stepping stone towards her dream of being an Olympic player.
Next, she participated in a program called Futures, which was training for a tournament of the same name. She finished out her time with Futures by making the U17 team, the next step to getting noticed, making the U19 and U21 teams and advancing to the women’s national team.
“So for me, I made U19 first, and then U21,” Matson said. “[Dutch gold medalist] Janneke Schopman was the U21 coach for me. So when the women’s team coach retired, she became the coach and kind of took our core group of U21s up with her.”
Matson still remembers the moment she found out she had made the national team like it was yesterday. She was training at the Olympic training center in Chula Vista, California, when she received a call from Schopman.
“I think I was sitting on the dock or something, relaxing, and Janneke called me and asked if I wanted to come to New Zealand with them to play in a tournament over there,” she said. “That would be my first break with the national team – so I was like, ‘Of course, like oh my gosh.’ I called my parents right away, I remember crying.”
Since then, Matson has traveled with Team USA to South America, Europe and Africa, to name a few. After a successful first two years with the national team, it was time to play for UNC. During her freshman year season, she made a successful first impression, helping lead the team to its first national championship in nine years.
“I remember the last 10 seconds,” Matson said. “Everyone always tells you, like, ‘The game’s not over, until it’s over.’ And then the horn blew, and I threw my stick down, and I just ran to whoever was closest to me and gave them a big hug — I couldn’t even tell you who it was. And I’m a crier, so I cry at happy things. So I was crying, people were hugging. I don’t think we dogpiled — like, fell down — but I think we all just kind of clustered.”
Matson said the biggest focus for the team this year was to avoid settling. She cites their cohesiveness and constant striving to do better each day as keys to their success.
“I think for us the recognition of not becoming complacent, like it’s okay if we’re not generating a lot of attack, that doesn’t mean that we don’t know how to handle it, that kind of mindset allowed us to keep a forward look instead of plateauing,” she said.
The national championship wasn’t the only bright spot during the season for Matson, who was featured as a SportsCenter Top 10 clip for her play against Wake Forest in the ACC Tournament final. She had a second chance to score after she went for the goal, the ball went back to her and she shot it in for a backhanded goal. She remembers it as being surreal, receiving a text from her father that she was on TV.
“It just kind of happened – it was a great corner call and a great play,” Matson said. “I just reacted and then next thing I know, my dad texted me that I was on SportsCenter, so that was cool.”
There’s been one person besides Matson’s parents that has been there to see all of her field hockey milestones – current UNC teammate, Romea Riccardo, who has known Matson since they were ten years old.
“We ended up playing on the same club team together, and then our high schools play in the same conferences, and we just know each other from that and playing club together,” Riccardo said. “So and then we ended up committing to the same school, and we’ve been friends since.”
Riccardo enjoys being able to help her friend improve as a player, citing her ability to make Matson uncomfortable on the field because she has known her for so long. She loves being able to connect with her on a deeper level than just field hockey – she said they support each other through everything.
“We were ecstatic [to be playing on the same team in college] – being able to play with a friend that I’ve played with since I was younger, reconnecting, was just an awesome experience and moment,” she said.
Matson feels the same way, looking back on their younger years together fondly and now enjoying playing with Riccardo at UNC.
“We were close then and then we kind of separated for a couple years. And now obviously we’re like this close [intertwines fingers]. She’s great,” Matson said. “We help each other out and do favors. She’s supportive. I think it’s important to just kind of have your person and know who it is so you can vent and relax and do whatever with them.”
Knowing Matson for almost ten years has allowed Riccardo to see her development as a player and a person, and Riccardo praises her for her passion, drive and friendship.
“When she plays she cares so much about the game and making sure you’re getting better and the team’s getting better,” Riccardo said. “She’s very like, serious [on the field] and off the field she’s like a totally different person, being friendly and more laid back than [in] the game of field hockey, I guess.”
Matson is looking forward to the next season at UNC, but in the meantime, in between practices and workouts, she’ll relax by going to the beach, listening to music, spending time with family or watching her boyfriend’s [UNC baseball player Tom Caufield] games at Boshamer Stadium.
One of Shelton’s concerns, though, is that after a fabulous freshman season, Matson will fall into a sophomore slump.
“She can be one of our best players ever, she’s that good,” Shelton said. “I don’t want her to have a sophomore slump – you gotta stay hungry and humble and hardworking.”
But Shelton isn’t too worried. She knows Matson has a good head on her shoulders and always has. She can’t say enough good things about her, both as a player and a person, calling her well-respected, a game-changer and uncannily skilled.
“She’s very diligent about her workouts, her schoolwork, her nutrition, sleep. And being with the national team, they insist upon it, so she’s had the ability to grow into her body but to mature intellectually, from a field hockey IQ point of view,” she said. “She’s really smart, she’s really fast, physically strong, and technically outstanding. She’s got it all.”
So after a whirlwind freshman year, what’s next for Matson? Of course, her next three seasons at UNC await, but she hasn’t put her Olympic dreams on hold. One thing is for sure, though: her career won’t end after college.
“[The U.S. national team is] hopefully going to qualify for Tokyo in 2020, and then we have another World Cup in 2022,” she said. “And after that, I’ll be graduated for Paris 2024, so that’s the next couple steps.”
Through it all, Matson will keep her head steady and composed, which she attributes to her parents and her coaches. She said her parents have always kept her grounded and thinking about the next step in her playing career.
“I think I’ve always had good role models – my parents, my coaches, I mean, Coach Shelton holds me accountable. Also, I’ve never really felt the need to be cocky or showy,” she said.
In fact, Matson has a three-part plan for excellence as a player: humility, making your teammates look good, and sacrifice.
“I genuinely believe that you cannot become great— I mean, you have to have a certain level of confidence, but there is a limit, and I think knowing that you’re still one player on that whole field with a ton of other girls is a big part of it,” she said. “I also think people underestimate the power to make your teammates look better instead of just yourself. And going back to sacrifices, it’s what you do when people aren’t watching, and I think a lot of people don’t realize the time you have to put in if you want to be great, outside of practice, outside of lifts – and I think all three of those are just a little bit of what you need.”