North Carolina rides record win streak into 2019 NCAA field hockey final four

Sophomore Erin Matson, who leads the country with 1.50 goals per game and ranks third overall in total goals (27), has never lost a game since becoming a Tar Heel. UNC Athletic Communications

North Carolina's field hockey team almost lost at Michigan in the season opener but scored three second-half goals to prevail.

The next game, Tar Heels needed to pull the goalie against Iowa. UNC won 2-1.

Next up against fifth-ranked Princeton, the Tar Heels trailed 3-1 in the final quarter. Fifth-year senior Marissa Creatore collected her teammates. "We looked at each other and said, 'We're not losing on our home field.'"

Three goals in the final 5:01 did more than lift North Carolina to a 3-0 start. It confirmed what this team was capable of during a season that coach Karen Shelton initially termed a rebuilding one. Six seniors graduated from the team that won the program's seventh national championship in 2018.

"There was a lot of uncertainty," Shelton said.

"They bring their notebooks in and we give them the scouting report. Instead of just hearing us speak, they're a bit more engaged and it's a little more thorough." UNC coach coach Karen Shelton

Yet here North Carolina sits again, the No. 1 overall seed in its 11th straight final four alongside Virginia, Boston College and the Princeton team that nearly interrupted a winning streak for the ages.

"Gritty, tough, resilient," Shelton said about her Tar Heels, who have set school and conference records by winning their last 44 games. "I like this group an awful lot. They find a way to win the game."

The Tar Heels are 4-0 this season against teams still alive in field hockey's final weekend. North Carolina (21-0) will meet Boston College (15-7) on Friday at 1 p.m. in the first national semifinal at Wake Forest's Kentner Stadium in Winston Salem, North Carolina. The rematch of the ACC title game will be contested a little more than an hour from the UNC campus.

Princeton will meet Virginia in the second semifinal at 3:45 p.m. Sunday's national title game is set for 1 p.m.

A victory would tie North Carolina with Maryland with eight NCAA field hockey titles apiece. Old Dominion's nine titles remain the standard.

Last year's Tar Heels halted a frustrating run of eight years of UNC reaching the final four only to fall short. That ended thanks to Ashley Hoffman, the reigning national player of the year who helped UNC beat Maryland 2-0 in the title game.

As much as Creatore savored the championship, she saw this new season as a new chapter.

"Coming off the high last year, it felt like, Oh, no. We're not going to be as good.' We lost players, had new people and injuries," she said. "From the beginning, we said to ourselves, 'We don't want to be last year's team. We're a new team.' We didn't want that pressure."

The focus-on-the-next game mentality the Tar Heels adopted forced them not to talk about a winning streak that dates back to the final four two years ago. UNC last lost in the 2017 national semifinals against UConn.

Watching that game online was sad for Erin Matson, who committed to UNC when she was a sophomore in high school. But she's never had that feeling in uniform. The sophomore who wears No. 1 and leads the NCAA in goals and assists per game has never lost as a Tar Heel.

Her improvement from last season to this one -- which includes recent Team USA experience from playing an Olympic qualifier in India -- is among the reasons why UNC ranks as the top offensive team in the nation.

"She draws a crowd," Shelton said. "The fact that she's so good and so threatening opens other people up because she can pass so well."

If anything was suspect in preseason, it was the Carolina defense. Graduation took a toll on the back line. When Cassie Sumfest suffered a knee injury last spring, that meant no returnees had significant experience on defense.

Shelton, among the coaching deans in this sport, relied on an old-school method to resonate with her players. The stadium that carries her name on campus is home to a theater-like classroom that serves as the team meeting room -- a state-of-the-art space with WiFi among the amenities. Despite this generation's comfort with typing reminders into their smartphones, she handed out three-ringed binders.

Every player has one with her name on it. The Tar Heels don't type. They write with pencils and pens. "Studies show they are more apt to remember things that they actually write them down," Shelton said. "They bring their notebooks in and we give them the scouting report. Instead of just hearing us speak, they're a bit more engaged and it's a little more thorough."

Initially, there was plenty to keep track of, particularly for the defensive newcomers. Madison Orobono and Romea Riccardo didn't see the field last year. Orobono is a true freshman; Riccardo is a redshirt freshmen. Both have started every game in 2019.

Up front, Chapel Hill's own Creatore or Catherine Hayden, neither of whom is on athletic scholarship, embraced the leadership void left by the departure of so many upperclassmen.

"What they've done is remarkable," Shelton said. "They're the ones who are the first in and the last out. They've put in extra time to get to where they are today."

The Tar Heels' strength as a unit, Creatore said, goes beyond their technical skill. They connect as much off the pitch as they do on. The players reside in a clump of four houses and pass through each other's doors without knocking. Movie marathons are a hit on Sunday nights. The Tar Heels recently finished off the Harry Potter flicks in time to move on to Christmas favorites, including "Elf" and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas."

"It's a good balance of field hockey and time away with friends, not labeling everyone as teammates. They're friends," Matson said. "That definitely correlates to being successful on the field."

Creatore's house hosts face masks -- the exfoliating kind -- at least three times a week.

"We are very into skincare, nails and eyebrows," Matson said.

These Tar Heels love each other's pooches, too. Ellen Payne's French bulldog, Franklin, named for the famed street in town, is a cuddle bug. Courtnie Williams' Pomeranian/Husky mix, Lana, gets plenty of attention, too.

"We enjoy our pets for sure," Matson said.

And the winning, well, that's the icing, too. Reaching the final four is expected for a program making its 24th appearance on this last weekend. Leaving with the big trophy is an annual goal, but Creatore is among those who remembers that feeling of falling shy in penalty strokes against UConn when she was a sophomore.

"We all came together after that loss and looked at each other, tears in our eyes, and said, 'We're never losing again,'" she said. "We still have people on our team talking about the shootout that they missed or our goalie talking about saving that one shot. I think it's so special that that is still, to this day, so ingrained in us."

What's made an even bigger impression: what it feels like to win. The UNC and ACC win streak milestones "got us excited to ask, 'What else can we break? What else can we do?'" Creatore said.

A second consecutive NCAA title, perhaps?

It'll come down to this weekend.