Tar Heels top Northwestern for field hockey national title

Carolina's 2-1 shootout victory is the program's 11th NCAA title and fifth in the past six years.

The Carolina field hockey team posing for a team photo with the NCAA championship trophy on the field at Karen Shelton Stadium on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill
Carolina holds the all-time record for titles (11) won by a field hockey program. (Jeffrey A. Camarati/GoHeels)

Carolina earned the 11th NCAA Field Hockey Championship in program history Sunday afternoon at Karen Shelton Stadium, winning in a penalty shootout in front of the largest home crowd in program history.

The top-ranked Tar Heels beat No. 2 Northwestern 2-1, with sophomore Ryleigh Heck nailing the winning shot. The teams were tied through the first round of five shots, so the shootout went to sudden death. Carolina goalkeeper Maddie Kahn defended the first Northwestern shot, leaving the door open for Heck to win the game, which is exactly what she did, sending her team — and the majority of the fans — into celebration.

“I don’t know how to put it into words,” said Erin Matson, who is in her first year as Carolina’s head coach after five years — and four national championships — as a Tar Heel player. “I don’t know what more you’d want in a national championship matchup than tied at the end of regulation, two overtimes, sudden-death shootout — just a phenomenal atmosphere.

“Northwestern gave it their all. It was a great game so props to them, props to Annabel (Skubisz, the Wildcat goalkeeper) in the cage holding down the fort.”

The title is the Tar Heels’ second straight and fifth in the past six years. Carolina already held the all-time record for titles won by a program and now extends that one more. (Old Dominion is second with nine.)

After a scoreless first half, the Tar Heels took the lead on a penalty corner goal 2:33 into the third quarter. First-year Charly Bruder had the score, with assists from fifth-year seniors Paityn Wirth and Romea Riccardo.

In the 44th minute of play, Northwestern was awarded a penalty stroke following the illegal stop of a penalty corner shot. Peyton Halsey made the shot to tie the score at 1-1 heading into the fourth quarter.

The teams played through that quarter and then two 10-minute overtime periods still locked at 1-1. That sent the game into a penalty shootout, Carolina’s first since the 2017 NCAA semifinals. Both teams were successful on two of five shots in the first round, so the shootout went into sudden death. Northwestern went first, and Kahn successfully defended the shot. That put the game in the hands of Heck, to whom Matson said: “Just go win a national championship.”

“Right then and there my mind just went blank,” said Heck, who also made her first shot of the five-player sequence and says she loves penalty shootouts. “I don’t even remember spinning or scoring, I just remember being with my teammates just cheering. One of the greatest feelings ever.”

Sunday’s game sold out early in the week, with only limited standing-room tickets available before the game. By game time, crowds had gathered beside the stands, spilling out along the edges of the field. Counting those gathered around the sides to watch, attendance was announced at 3,200, the largest crowd in program history.

“Everything we’ve worked so hard on all season, all the conversations we’ve had, every practice, they’ve just grown and blossomed into even more amazing hockey players than I could have imagined but even greater leaders and people and student-athletes in general,” Matson said. “I couldn’t be prouder, and I’m so happy it was on our home turf.”