North Carolina field hockey’s legendary coach-player duo achieved new dynamic in 2023, an interview with Karen Shelton

Karen Shelton applied for only one job in her professional life: head field hockey coach at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


Her legacy began in 1981 and ended in 2022, when Shelton passed the Tar Heel torch to a younger version of herself, essentially her protégé, Erin Matson. Matson was tabbed as North Carolina’s next legacy creator earlier this year after the university completed its head coach hiring process.


At age 23, Matson mirrored a similar entry to becoming head coach of one of the nation’s prominent collegiate field hockey programs just as Shelton had done decades prior. Shelton, when 23 accepted a part-time coaching role, also arrived in North Carolina from Chester County, Pennsylvania through relationships.



Karen Shelton, Erin Matson
University of North Carolina Field Hockey
Media & Communications Center
Chapel Hill, NC
Friday, August 13, 2021

While Shelton didn’t play for Chapel Hill, she bleeds Carolina blue. And, when she saw the young, ambitious Matson play for the WC Eagles club in Spring City, Pennsylvania, Shelton said she knew Matson was destined for greatness just like her mentors believed in her in her formative years.


The Shelton-Matson relationship is a powerful one. It’s one that reflects mutual respect, admiration, and belief in the other. Much like many notorious male coach-player relationships, that power can ignite debates, tension, and, ultimately, place excessive media attention on the respective sport they coach-play.


In this case, the Shelton-Matson duo shines a light on field hockey, a sport that they love. Field hockey is often underreported in US sports news.


“I’m excited for Erin Matson,” Shelton told FAN earlier this year. “It was a bold decision. I think she knows our program inside and out. I foresee her having a long career.”


Matson has been, and fairly is, compared to many male phenoms, who are known to be hounded by fans, anti-fans, and the sports media. She defies doubters who claim, “she’s not all that,” when she can boast four NCAA Division I championship rings. And, more recently, her fifth, first as a coach, after leading her 2023 squad to win the NCAA Division I national title in sudden victory shootouts.


When Matson was hired in early 2023, she again became an instant national sensation and set ablaze sports media attention on herself, UNC-Chapel Hill, and field hockey. Some insiders said they thought Matson should have started out as a coach of a Division II program, others said she should have been an assistant coach first.



Karen Shelton & Erin Matson
University of North Carolina Field Hockey v Virginia
Jack Katz Stadium
Durham, NC
Friday, November 4, 2022

Even those who are not close to the sport speculated hiring 23-year-old Matson was a risk.  


But, in the end of her first year premiere, she proved to have the emotional maturity, field hockey IQ, and balance to take her team all the way to the end. It would be North Carolina’s 11th claimed natty under the watch of a fresh face.


Social media didn’t exist when Shelton won her first national title. Multiple independent media sites didn’t either. There wasn’t as much of an emphasis placed on women in sports back then. And, Title IX, while it had been authorized by Congress, the federal changes hadn’t made an impact yet.  


Shelton, in fact, was a part-time coach, not on UNC’s staff, earning under $8,000. She spent half her time training with the USA Women’s National Team.


She was a member of the USA team that won bronze at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, the only medal the USA Women’s National Field Hockey Team has won at the world’s multi-sport celebration of athletics and competition.


Born in Hawaii into a military family, Shelton eventually became one of the winningest college coaches, male or female, in the United States. She started at age 23, when she was hired in the Spring of 1981. Her career began August 1.


“Never applied for another job,” she said.


Shelton got the job through relationships. Her name was added to a list of prospective head coaches by UNC’s retiring head field hockey coach at that time. Shelton played field hockey at West Chester University in college and at the end of her higher education, she got a tap on the shoulder from UNC.


She had one year of assistant coaching experience at Franklin and Marshall College.


“I wasn’t really interested in becoming a head coach,” she said. “I was trying to be someone’s assistant. I was the first name on the list and told to come down. I was asked, ‘are you interested in Carolina? I’m getting ready to retire.’ She said come down. I was on the campus for 15 minutes. My eyes got real big. North Carolina was a whole other level.”


Shelton had a starting salary of $7,700. Matson now earns six figures.


“I wasn’t even on staff,” Shelton said. “I became permanent in 1990. We won a national championship in 1989. In 1990, I was made a full-time employee. For me, it’s never been about the money. It’s been a labor of love. Forty-two years went by so fast. I just loved it and representing Carolina. And, being part of intercollegiate athletics, especially for women.”



Karen Shelton & Erin Matson
University of North Carolina Field Hockey v Northwestern
National Final
Karen Shelton Stadium
Chapel Hill, NC
Sunday, November 19, 2023

Under Shelton’s leadership, she led the Tar Heels to 10 NCAA Championships, 25 Atlantic Coast Conference championships and winning records in 41 out of 42 seasons. She collected five perfect seasons, of which three of them involved Matson. The Tar Heels, when Shelton coached, finished as finalists in the national championship 11 times.


“We played on a grass field,” Shelton said of her early seasons. “I wanted to move to turf, but they said no it’s dangerous because it could have a couple of rips in the seams. We ultimately got what we wanted and had to share the turf field with football and the band. For 13 years, we had to practice at night. Football had the field from 2 p.m. to 6. And the band had second priority. Then we came after that. And, then the NCAA did a Title IX study, and they came in and said, ‘you’ve got to change that.’ There was a stipulation back in the day that no sports teams could practice before 2 p.m. I think it was in 1995. We were given permission to start our practice at 1 p.m. So that made a big difference in our lives because we started practicing during the day and that was a huge benefit rather than going at night all the time.”


Shelton never said it was easy to be a female coach. And, she never said being a female coach meant she had preferential treatment. She said she was proud to have been raised by a family anchored in discipline, competition, and love.


“I’m very proud of my father,” she said. “He flew in World War II, an aerial reconnaissance mission. He flew a Chinook helicopter in Vietnam, transported supplies.”


Shelton grew up in a generation that expected youth to go outside to play. And, that’s what her brothers and sisters did together. She said they spent their time playing street dodgeball and would “go back to the house at dark with stubbed toes.”


There were few sports options for girls in the 70s, but she would watch her brothers play little league. Eventually, she would connect with females who shared her same philosophy and encouraged her on her own athletic path. She discovered field hockey and basketball, but said she fell in love with hockey.


USA Field Hockey also noticed Shelton’s potential.


“It’s a huge, huge honor to make a national team and represent your country,” Shelton said. “It was something to play in Wembley Stadium. England, every year, held a game in Wembley, where they invited the schoolgirls from their country, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland. My first time there, they had over 64,000 screaming girls in the stadium. That was 1978. My first international trip.”


Shelton made the 1980 roster, but President Jimmy Carter had boycotted the Moscow Olympics due to tensions between the former USSR and the United States.  



Erin Matson & Karen Shelton
University of North Carolina Field Hockey v Northwestern
National Final
Karen Shelton Stadium
Chapel Hill, NC
Sunday, November 19, 2023

“For me, it was somewhat historic,” Shelton said. “I was from a military family. I supported the President’s decision and I assumed he had more information than I had. I had a different mindset than some of my other teammates. I thought it was reasonable. I knew I was going to continue playing. Several of my teammates refused to shake Jimmy Carter’s hand. We had a celebration and a parade instead. My parents were sitting on the White House lawn. I thought it was really an incredible honor. I stayed on through ‘84. Maybe in hindsight, if I didn’t have the Olympic experience in ‘84, it may have been harder to take. I just assumed at that time we were doing the right thing.”


Shelton went on to share her life experiences and lessons learned with Carolina’s athletes. Fast forward to 2018, and she would become only the second Tar Heel coach up to that point to have a facility named after her. The late Dean Smith, Carolina’s men’s basketball coach from 1961 to 1997, was the first.


In the first two seasons playing at Karen Shelton Stadium, the Tar Heels went undefeated both at home and overall in 2018 and 2019. Anson Dorrance joined both Smith and Shelton in their exclusive club with the opening of a new soccer and lacrosse stadium named Dorrance Field in 2019. Dorrance is credited with setting a high bar early for women’s athletics.


“When I first came here, Dean Smith was a huge influence,” Shelton said. “Everybody looked to him, he set the tone for the department. He would say, ‘you do things the right way. You play hard, smart, together.’ That’s something I’ve lived by. I could never be like Dean Smith. I feel the same way for Anson Dorrance. I think he’s a genius, but I can’t be like him. You have to be yourself. That’s what every coach should do. You have to come up with your own style. I think I’ve been able to push kids. I’ve gotten softer. I was way tougher earlier on. But, I pushed kids because they think they can’t do things, but I know that they can. There’s a fine line in how hard you can push. But be true to your convictions. Try to do things the right way. Don’t cheat. Follow the rules but work hard.”


Shelton said she’d been thinking about retirement for several years. When Matson shared her interest in the job with Shelton, it seemed almost poetic to some.


“Matson got the job on her own,” Shelton said. “I knew she would be good, just knowing her. I recruited her from an early age. She was coincidentally on my nieces’ WC team. She was either in fourth or fifth grade. I was told, ‘you’ve got to see this girl.’ And, there she was, running circles around other players. I watched her grow up. She’s very special to me. I think she’s going to be very special for the program at Carolina. She earned the job. It was a strong field. She has my full and unwavering support. I only want the best for our program; cutting-edge, top-level coaching. At the beginning, I could demonstrate and play. But, now, we have a backhand shot and my backhand stinks.”


As the years flew by and Matson remained disciplined, shared her passion on social media, and grew into a powerful field hockey leader in her teenage years, Shelton said she saw the impact that Matson was having on athletes and the game.



Erin Matson
University of North Carolina Field Hockey v St. Joseph?s
Karen Shelton Stadium
Chapel Hill, NC
Sunday, October 23, 2022

“I could have coached longer, but I didn’t want to,” Shelton said. “The time was right. I think it was time for young blood and new energies, thoughts, and ideas. I modernized coaching to the current standards, not that Carolina was becoming old-fashioned, but I really studied what was happening at the next level. I felt that I embraced change and stayed current. But it was just time.”


Matson told the ACC network that she pursued the job. Matson said she told North Carolina’s Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham, in her fifth year on the pitch, that she wanted to be the Heels’ next head coach. He told her to win another national championship and that they’d talk after that.


It almost seems divinely scripted that Matson then led the Heels in scoring to claim the 2022 NCAA Division I college field hockey national title. So, in Matson style, which is eerily Shelton-like, she asked to be considered. Her name was included in the search for the next college coach. The job search ended up being whittled down to three finalists.


A telltale sign that something was going on was when USA Field Hockey announced its 2023 Pro-League roster traveling to New Zealand and Australia, and Matson, who would have been anticipated to be on the list, wasn’t.


Shortly thereafter, North Carolina broke the news that its next head coach would be Matson. Matson told FAN in a special guest interview on ‘Game Speed’ that she put a lot of thought into seeking the head coach position. She said she didn’t see taking the head coaching position as a way of giving an indefinite no to playing for Team USA.


‘Game Speed’ with special guest the University of North Carolina’s head field hockey Coach Erin Matson


“We’ve chatted about it,” Shelton said. “I think it’s important for her to continue to play. She still has so much to offer. I don’t think she’s saying no to the US team. I think she’s saying, she needs to get her feet under her. She has heart, is articulate; she’s somebody special. She’s someone with the ‘it’ factor, on and off the field. It wasn’t a hard transition for her. I think she fully intends to go back if the national coach wants her to come back to the team.”


The year 2023 has been the end of an era for Carolina, and the beginning of something new. Shelton said she’ll continue to hang around field hockey and Chapel Hill when she can. She’s admittedly a snowbird now, who remains physically active while spending more time with her husband.


“I’m grateful for all the student athletes and wonderful relationships with them and assistant coaches throughout the years,” Shelton said. “I tell everybody that it’s been an absolute labor of love. I loved coaching Carolina. I’m happy that we’ve had a program that has a strong reputation for playing by the rules, playing hard, smart, powerful defense. I think we did things the right way. Our program has a solid reputation. I’m proud of that. You don’t just get a reputation in a few years. We’ve had a reputation that has been stellar for a long time.”

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