For the third season in a row and the ninth time in program history, North Carolina is the NCAA field hockey champion. The Tar Heels beat Michigan 4-3 in overtime on Sunday night to claim what is technically the 2020 national championship, regardless of what the calendar may say.
Carolina, the top seed in the NCAA field for the third year in a row, won on its home turf at Karen Shelton Stadium to finish the season 19-1. Junior Erin Matson, the nation’s leading scorer, scored the game-winner in OT.
“What a heck of a game,” said coach Karen Shelton, the sport’s winningest coach. “I’m so proud of our kids, but I also have to congratulate the University of Michigan. They played so hard and so tough. They challenged us. We like to play a little slower and a little more methodically, but you can’t do that against them – the pressure comes so fast.”
Michigan (15-3) put pressure on early, going up 1-0 in the 10th minute of play on an unassisted goal by Kate Burney. The Tar Heels answered just 33 seconds later on a penalty corner, their first of the game. Junior Erin Matson had the goal, assisted by Abby Pitcairn on the insert and Romea Riccardo on the stick stop.
Carolina took the lead in the 18th minute when the Tar Heels were awarded a penalty stroke, and senior Bryn Boylan stepped up to make her fourth of the year in four attempts, rolling a shot into the bottom right corner of the cage to give her team a 2-1 lead at halftime.
In the 38th minute, they went up 3-1 when Matson blasted a shot from just inside the circle, and freshman Mia Leonhart, who scored her first career goal in Friday’s semifinal win, got her stick on the ball to add another, poking Matson’s ball past the Michigan keeper, Anna Spieker.
After the Tar Heels went up by two, Michigan answered with a pair of third-quarter goals by Kathryn Peterson and Sarah Pyrtek to tie the game at 3-3 heading in the fourth. Carolina got off three shots but couldn’t score (Spieker had two saves in the period), and Michigan didn’t take a fourth-quarter shot.
It was the seventh overtime game of the season for Carolina, which was unbeaten in the previous six. “I’m confident of our kids when we get to overtime,” Shelton said. “We’ve practiced it, and we’ve been in a lot of pressure situations.”
Just over six minutes into the seven-on-seven period, the Tar Heels drew a penalty corner, only their fourth of the game. They didn’t manage to get a shot off but drew another, and this time Matson made it count. Senior Eva Smolenaars’ insert went straight to Matson, who drove around a defender and then backhanded a shot into the cage for the win before finding herself at the bottom of the dogpile, courtesy of her third overtime game-winner of the spring.
It’s the first title Carolina has won on its home turf and extends the Tar Heels’ record at Karen Shelton Stadium to 37-0. Although limited in size by Covid restrictions, the crowd was loud and enthusiastic. The official attendance inside the stadium was 450, but many others crowded in to watch from outside the fence.
“The crowd was fantastic,” Shelton said. “It’s very special for all of us to represent the University of North Carolina, and to win a national championship on our home field is something that’s pretty darned special. I know the kids take pride in defending their home, and they did that so well tonight.”
Carolina is now tied with Old Dominion for most NCAA field hockey titles with nine. The Tar Heels lead all programs in NCAA wins (73) and NCAA games played (101).
The three-peat marks the second time in program history that Carolina has won three titles in a row – the Tar Heels also won in 1995, 1996 and 1997.