Born & Bred: Finding Her Place
This story first appeared in the 29th issue of Born & Bred, the official magazine of The Rams Club.
By Adam Lucas, Nov. 21, 2022
One of the clearest indicators of Erin Matson’s future came on a visit to Duke University.
The 15-year-old Matson was a field hockey prodigy. She’d been playing against foes five or more years older than her for nearly a decade. She was a highly sought after recruit.
So of course she had to take recruiting visits. She had an inkling where she wanted to attend college – which was still nearly three years away – but her parents, Brian and Jill, were insistent that she make an effort to have a legitimate recruitment.
So the family left their home in Chadds Ford, Penn., and visited Duke in September of 2015. The visit was…fine. The coaches were fine and the facilities were fine and the available opportunities were fine.
Normal fifteen-year-olds might be swayed by the Gothic buildings and the student body with a healthy population of kids from her area of the country and the opportunity to camp out for weeks in order to watch the basketball team lose to the hated rival.
And Erin could imagine a scenario in which this particular school might be a great fit for some of her teammates, perhaps, or maybe a friend or two. But as for her?
The Duke coaches offered her a scholarship. Of course they did. The family graciously acknowledged the offer. They headed for the car. And on the way from the field to the car, Erin turned to her parents with that same determined face with which defenders and professors and friends are very familiar. “I’m not going here,” she said.
She wasn’t done.
“I want to commit to Carolina tomorrow,” she said. “I’ve been telling you since I was nine years old that UNC is where I want to go. Nothing has changed.”
The family tweaked their plans. They drove to the Carolina Inn. They arranged a Monday meeting with Tar Heel field hockey coach Karen Shelton.
That same evening, Erin had to train because, well, she is Erin. She needed to go on a run to maintain her conditioning. There were National Team commitments to meet and standards to uphold. Her parents dropped her off near the Bell Tower with simple instructions: go run. Meet us back here, and let’s see how you feel when you get back. Then we’ll meet with Coach Shelton tomorrow.
She ran down South Road past the Student Store. She ran down Stadium Drive and turned left on Ridge Road. She ran past Henry Stadium, at that time the home of the Tar Heels. She knew no one. She barely knew how to get back to the Bell Tower, and those who love her will tell you this is no surprise because she is fundamentally directionally challenged.
Thirty minutes later, she met back up with her parents. The run had done exactly what they hoped: it had provided clarity. She knew.
To see her play is to understand.
It is entirely possible that you do not have a complete understanding of the sometimes complex rules of field hockey. Perhaps you have a vague grasp of the idea that the Tar Heels are the sport’s dominant program, Karen Shelton has the stadium named after her, and the object is to score more goals than the other team.
It doesn’t matter.
Watch Carolina play one time and you will instantly notice the player wearing the number-one jersey, the one who appears to be playing a slightly different game. She hits it a little harder, yes. She is never bigger – the smallest, youngest kid usually gets the one jersey, which is how she arrived at that number as a youngster – but she is often faster and almost always quicker. But it soon becomes evident that she sees the game very differently than even the extremely talented players with whom she is competing. She passes the ball to where teammates are going, not where they are. She moves in a way that suggests she understands what defenders are going to do before they do it.
Recent CMA Entertainer of the Year Eric Church, as usual, has the exact right words. He met Matson on his fall visit to Chapel Hill (these are the types of encounters that just seem to happen when you are Erin Matson, a fact which she still handles with the perfect blend of stunned surprise, awe and giddiness). “I don’t have to understand the rules,” he said, “to know she’s the GOAT.”
The term is overused in the modern sports vernacular. The term is also completely appropriate in this case. She is, factually speaking, the Greatest Of All Time.
The pure skill level has been evident since she was in elementary school. Matson didn’t commit to attend Carolina until tenth grade, but head coach Karen Shelton had first seen her long before that.
“When she was in fifth or sixth grade, I went to Pennsylvania, where most of my family still lives,” Shelton says. “My brother and his daughter were going to indoor practice, and I wanted to see her play. My brother said, ‘There’s this other girl who is younger, but she’s unbelievable. You have to see her.’
“That girl was Erin. She was just this little thing, but she was incredible. Her hands and scoring were already next level. That’s when it started. I eventually met her parents, she came to our camp, and it progressed from there.”
The skills Shelton saw were the product of a fortuitous combination of Jill, a former field hockey player at Yale, and Brian, a baseball player at Delaware who became a physical therapist. That duo had the perfect blend of knowledge of the game and ability to technically train an athlete that created the unicorn Shelton saw.
It worked more than once; the couple’s younger son, Sean, just completed his first season at Harvard, where he pitched and then was named his summer league’s most valuable pitcher. Both siblings did their indoor individual training in a room Brian created for them in the basement, painting it with garage floor paint so it would be smooth for Erin to work on stickwork and fast hands and hanging netting so Erin could work on shooting and Sean could have an indoor batting cage.
When the family moved in 2012, one of the first projects was replicating that setup in what became known as “the blue room” downstairs. The rule was simple: holes in the wall are acceptable as long as they resulted from practicing, not horseplay. “When we move,” Jill says, “we have a lot of holes in the wall to fix.”
It became a refuge. “When I’m in that room,” Erin says, “I’m in my own world. I always have a speaker blaring or my headphones on and I can’t hear anything, but my dad has said he can tell what drill I’m working on from what the taps sound like. All I hear is whatever song is blaring in my ears. It’s a little safe space for me. I’ve never gotten bored with doing fundamentals, so I’ll go down there when I have things on my mind and nothing else bothers me. Even when I’m playing, there are times I think about stuff in that room.”
Opponents see the work product from that room, too. The most elementary individual field hockey drill might be pulls, simply controlling the ball from side to side as quickly as possible. It’s essentially dribbling in basketball; a very basic skill that every player understands but very few players completely master. Even as her profile climbed, Erin kept doing her pulls, sometimes evoking laughter from her teammates who had moved on to more advanced skills.
“Erin, just go do your pulls,” they’d say dismissively.
“I think they were joking,” she says, “but to me, I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to.’” The lightning fast hands created by those endless repetitions have generated more points than any player in Atlantic Coast Conference history.
The evolution, though, is that she is more than just a workout warrior; she actually knows how to play the game. This is partially because her parents were willing to help, of course. Brian knew nothing about the field hockey basics but it wasn’t unusual to see the Matsons on a field somewhere, Brian bouncing field hockey balls to his daughter, who would receive them, and then smack them at her brother, who would field them with his baseball glove.
But both parents know their makeshift drills were only a small part of the player their daughter has become. The development was provided rocket fuel when Erin joined the WC Eagles, a legendary club team, just before her tenth birthday. For several years, observers had told the Matsons she needed to join the organization. But she was still playing travel softball and rec basketball, and it didn’t seem time to make the full commitment just yet.
When she went to a tryout, though, she fell in love immediately. “That is where I want to play,” the nine-year-old said after first glimpsing the WC Eagles at a tournament and seeing the way they dominated opponents with a mix of skill and toughness.
She made the team without much ceremony. She simply went to a tryout, Brian stood outside the glass with his hands in his pockets trying not to get in the way, and then the coach, Jun Kentwell, walked up to him and said, “She is good enough to play here,” and then turned and walked away.
That meant an hour and 40 minute drive each way to practice, five days per week. Erin remembers the length of the drive being less problematic than another issue. “I am a perfectionist,” she says. “Of course I’d have to do my homework in the car. I’d have this beautiful outline going or some really good notes, and then we’d hit a pothole and everything was disrupted.”
Two years later, once they were certain she was thriving, the family cut their drive by more than half by moving to Chadds Ford. By that point, the training with WC Eagles had her on the verge of playing internationally against some of the best players in the world.
“We wanted to make sure she was really paying attention to detail,” says Richard Kentwell, who coaches the Eagles along with Jun. “At the very beginning, we were just doing the simple things with her and making sure she did the simple things very well. Once they have that consistency, then you can teach far more advanced skills. Because she had that focus and commitment to excellence, she very quickly developed that strong core skills foundation. Then we could teach her more skills and vision.
“Usually, vision is very poor with young children, and it is a challenge for them to see the court and the other players. When you watch her now, she knows what she is going to do before she receives the ball. That’s because with the attributes she had, we were able to teach her much more advanced skills. We made sure she was constantly pushing herself and not allowing any mediocrity to seep into her playing.”
One of the very basic tenets of understanding Erin Matson’s story is that she has not been her actual age since she was approximately ten years old. When she was 12, she was playing against opponents four and five years older. When she was in high school, while friends went out to have fun after a football game, she was going home to bed so she could wake up at 5 a.m. on Saturday for a field hockey tournament. In college, she was the ACC Player of the Year as a freshman. And as a senior, she’s running her own business while finishing her undergraduate degree and being the best player in the country and, when she has a few extra minutes, having a life. She has lived life four or five years ahead of schedule as long as she can remember.
“The first time I saw her play, I think she was only 16 years old,” says Kathleen Sharkey, who earned 176 caps with the United States National Team and led the NCAA in goals at Princeton in 2010 and 2012. “She was ten years younger than me. It was pretty amazing at that time to see someone who was still in high school who was holding their own at National Team practices. I remember thinking how impressive it was that her mom was driving her to practice and Erin was competing with girls ten years older than her.”
She graduated high school a semester early to be able to fully compete with the National Team. And while it was clearly a perfect fit on the field, it didn’t mean that everyone on the roster was at the same stage in life.
“I remember it being really bizarre that when I was 17 years old I went to my teammate’s wedding,” Erin says. “She was 28 or so, and I was at the table with these other 20-something year-olds celebrating her marriage. And there were times I’d have conversations with my teammates about them having to find someone to watch their kids or their dogs while we were out of the country playing, and I’d think, ‘I could be going to math class right now.’ But I learned so much about how to prepare and fuel my body and making time to do things like laundry that I never would have thought about in high school. It’s interesting now to look at high schoolers and think, ‘I was in a different place when I was that age.’”
She will eventually think the same thing when she looks back on college. Especially in the last 12 months, Matson has grown as a player and a person in ways that her friends immediately recognize. Her closest friend on campus is former Tar Heel field hockey player Galen Gray, a Houston native who says she first was only aware of Erin Matson as someone with the reputation for being “Miss Cool Girl” in field hockey circles.
What she discovered as they got closer was very different.
“Like everyone else, she’s had ups and downs,” Gray says. “In the last 12 months, she has really found herself and how to be herself to get through difficult times. She grew up in a very fast-forward, athletic lifestyle. She was a kid but was thrown into this highly trained athlete world and sometimes she never had time to slow down. In the last 12 months, I think she’s figured out how to be herself, and I think she is proud of what she has become and who she has surrounded herself with.”
It’s worth remembering that two years of Matson’s college career were consumed by Covid. It can be very fun – but it’s still more challenging than you might imagine – to be the nation’s best player in normal times. It can be very, very difficult to be the nation’s best player and a team leader when never-before-seen restrictions are in place and everyone is worried that a teammate might tattle on them for breaking rules no college team or college student has ever faced before.
Even today, as one of the premier college athletes in the country, some of her teammates recognize that it might be fun to be Erin Matson for a day. Not many of them, though, would want to do it for an entire week.
“People don’t realize that she is a normal person,” Gray says. “She has emotions. She gets overwhelmed. She is this amazing leader who is so strong and takes everything so seriously, but deep down she is the least serious person I know. She is so unapologetically herself. People sometimes forget that she is not an athlete as a person. There’s Erin the athlete and Erin the person. As a person, she’s funny, she’s normal, and she’s not some emotionless queen. She has feelings.”
And she has responsibilities. Name, image and likeness has gotten a bad reputation in some football and basketball circles, where it is sometimes code for something very different. For Matson, it is a way to benefit from her incredible success while looking into a future that is professionally uncertain. There is no money in professional field hockey in the United States. The deals she has done in the last 12 months are providing a foundation to give her flexibility other teammates at the college and national level won’t have; but the deals she’s doing are also legitimate jobs. She’s spending hours writing her weekly columns. She learned how to set up an online store and handle payments and shipping for her line of One-branded gear that’s available at erinmatsonone.com, which is a website she likewise learned how to produce and fill with engaging content.
These are not normal college activities. Neither is becoming an expert in social media, an area everyone close to her agrees has accelerated her growth into the public awareness. It began in earnest during Covid, when Matson had abundant free time between catching her brother’s long toss sessions (“She can’t read a fly ball, but she’s pretty good on long toss up to about 120 feet,” he says with a grin) and noticed she was getting frequent messages from young girls asking about her training regimen. At that point, she was at home in Pennsylvania and didn’t really have a team, but she had the workout space and had a phone, so she thought she might as well post a few videos online to connect with those younger players.
The result was a series that received hundreds of thousands of views on Instagram and Twitter. And a deepening connection with her fans – even as people spend money for shirts with her name and image on them, she still is amazed by the fact that she actually has “fans” – that continues today.
One of her summer 2022 projects was a youth clinic near her home in Pennsylvania that, predictably, immediately sold out. In addition to the training they received, one of the highlights for attendees was the chance to take pictures with their hero, which they of course immediately posted to Instagram, tagging the @erin_matson account in the hopes that she might see it.
She did. But here’s the difference. Not only did she see it. She took the time to comment on the posts. If you are a certain age, this will mean nothing to you. But if you are a very different certain age, you will understand how meaningful this can be.
“You rock girl!”
“So happy we could get together!”
“Amazing day, happy to see you again!”
“Queens! Bosses! Go girls!”
There are dozens of them, all from Matson herself, all on the posts of strangers and all symbolic of a college senior making time while waiting at an appointment or in a parking lot (she inevitably arrives early and it is not unusual to find her sitting in the car checking off emails or to-do items) and wanting to do something memorable for someone else rather than something for herself.
“She always makes time for the young ones,” Kentwell says. “I think it’s because she remembers the day when she was their age and looking up to those UNC players. That was her dream, and she wants those little girls to have the same dreams she had.”
Here is one of the many reasons you would like Erin Matson. Last December, she went on a trip to Aruba. It was a very rare opportunity to get away from her normal life for a few days. For just a few days, she could be a 21-year-old and not the standard bearer for an entire sport and one of the faces of a worldwide athletic department.
So what book did she throw in her suitcase?
Dean Smith’s “The Carolina Way.” She hadn’t read it yet and felt it was an important part of her Tar Heel education. This summer, she read “The Man Watching,” on the way Anson Dorrance built his women’s soccer dynasty.
This is not normal summer college reading. But here’s the trick, and here’s what makes her relatable to everyone: she also reads Colleen Hoover, and went through a stretch this fall when she was so wrapped up in the popular novelist that she was knocking out a book every few days.
On some level, this is why it works – why it has always worked. Matson is completely obsessed with doing the work required to be a transcendent Tar Heel. But she also manages to show us just enough normalcy that we believe maybe we could do what she’s doing. That is why little girls line up to talk to her after games. That is why they squeal when they walk away from her, and shout, “Best day ever!”
This is also why we loved it when Tyler Hansbrough jumped off the roof of the fraternity house. He was so unlike us, so completely outstanding that it was hard to relate to his level of obsessive commitment to greatness. But we knew that frat house and somewhere in our memory was the recollection that we were once young and foolish and invincible. Tyler, for that very brief moment, could have been us.
It is unlikely that any of us will ever be as good at anything as Erin Matson is at field hockey. But we can appreciate the Chapel Hill leaves in the fall the same way she can. We know the steps of Carroll Hall the same way she does. And we’ve thought about Carolina in the exact same way she does now, as her time as a student – but not her time as a Tar Heel, which she is quick to note is lifelong – comes to an end.
Maybe we should have known all along. There is a photo from her official visit to Carolina, in March of 2017. She was long since committed, of course, and the visit was a complete formality and mostly a way for she and her brother, Sean, to experience a Carolina- Duke basketball game at the Smith Center. So they smiled for a photo overlooking the court, all potential and no different than any of the other hundreds or thousands of Carolina fans who took a picture in that building on that day.
Except that the person in the photo became one of the greatest athletes in the history of the school. And that makes sense, because on the right-hand side of the picture, undetected by any member of the Matson family, sit Woody and Jean Durham, also watching the Tar Heels, completely unaware that the girl to the left of Woody – to the left of the kid who grew up idolizing Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice and marveling at Lennie Rosenbluth and then became all of our connection to everything Carolina for four decades – is about to rewrite what we consider to be the epitome of being a Tar Heel. It is somehow comforting to see them in the same space, even without them knowing it. Carolina continues, whether we realize it or not.
Even now, Brian Matson gets a little misty-eyed when he thinks back to that September evening in 2015 when his daughter went for a run on an unfamiliar campus and came back certain of her future. But there is something else, something he can picture any time he sees her wearing Carolina blue or watches her walk across campus or sees her smiling with the friends she has made in the last nine semesters.
It is almost over now. Everyone involved has relished this bonus fall, because it has been an opportunity to hold all of these moments a little more closely.
“I remember on my very first First Day of Class as a freshman, everyone said it would go by so fast,” she says. “And it really does. Doing so much writing this fall has been good for me because it makes me reflect. So much has happened to me here with records and team success. But it’s also been me growing up. It’s little things like moving houses and getting a new comforter and all that stuff that has been part of an evolution. It’s all happened at Carolina, and it’s really cool to think back on.”
Her parents see it. And while it’s gratifying, they are not surprised. Because they still think back to something she said when she came back from that run in 2015, and something she’s said regularly since then. Something that reminds you that even though Erin Matson’s undergraduate tenure at Carolina will end in December, she will always – always – be a Tar Heel.
So maybe you see the 22-year-old who is the Atlantic Coast Conference’s all-time leading scorer, the only five-time conference Player of the Year in any sport in league history, the multiple National Player of the Year award winner.
Brian sees a 15-year-old high school sophomore who went for a run and came back certain of her place.
“This is where I want to go,” she told her parents on that Sunday night in Chapel Hill.
“Why?” they asked her.
Their daughter looked at them and said exactly what you would want to hear from your own daughter, exactly what you want for yourself, maybe even exactly what you still think when you walk down Franklin Street.
“Carolina feels,” said Erin Matson, “like home.”