Fall or spring, rain or shine, one constant remains in NCAA field hockey: North Carolina’s success. This Sunday, March 9, the No. 1 seed Tarheels downed the No. 2 Michigan Wolverines in overtime, 4-3, to claim their third straight championship. UNC completed this back-to-back-to-back feat once previously in 1995, 1996 and 1997. With their program’s ninth title, North Carolina has tied Old Dominion University for most field hockey championships.
While UNC’s last two championships came comfortably, Michigan put up a valiant fight and held their own against the stacked North Carolina team. NCAA field hockey’s winningest coach Karen Shelton shared after lifting the trophy, “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.”
The Wolverines opened the scoring 9 minutes and 18 seconds into the first quarter when Kate Burney sent a ball from the right end line that deflected off a North Carolina defender’s stick into the goal. It took three-time Atlantic Coast Conference Offensive player of the year Erin Matson just 33 seconds to even the score and collect her 27th goal of the season. She fired a rocket on a direct drive from the top of the circle off a penalty corner. Abby Pitcairn earned the assist on the insert and Romea Riccardo allowed for the fast release with a superb stick stop.
The Tarheels took the lead in the 18th minute after earning a penalty stroke. UNC earned the stroke after a ball ricocheted off of a Michigan player’s thigh behind her goalie. Senior Bryn Boylan stepped up to take the shot and scored her fourth stroke of the season on four attempts. Her shot appeared to be a miss hit, as it rolled slowly past Michigan keeper Anna Spieker, who guessed the wrong way. UNC took a 2-1 lead into the half.
Eight minutes into the third quarter, the Tarheels extended their lead on a top circle blast from Matson and a well-placed tip from first-year Mia Leonhardt. Leonhardt proved that she can perform in big games as she recorded her first career goal in Carolina’s semifinal win.
Michigan’s Kathryn Peterson answered quickly on an unassisted backhand shot from the top of the circle to put the game within one. Minutes later, Sarah Prytek chopped in a loose ball on a backhand to even the score 3-3. With Prytek’s goal, the teams made collective NCAA field hockey history; for the first time in 40 title games, both teams scored at least three goals.
In the fourth period, both teams battled across the whole field but neither could find the goal to win in regulation. Michigan goalkeeper Spieker came up big with two diving saves in the fourth while her team could not get a shot off thanks to the lockdown Carolina defense. Both goalkeepers excelled in regulation, despite giving up three goals each. Amanda Hendry and Spieker made four saves each on elite shots.
As the two teams pushed each other to their limits, it was fitting that the contest would be decided in overtime.This marked UNC’s seventh overtime (OT) in 2021, all of which they have come out victorious. OT is a wide open version of hockey. The 11 vs. 11 player set-up is reduced to 7 vs. 7 players for up to two ten-minute periods, fighting for a golden goal: the first team to score wins.
While each team relied on the defensive transfer and holding possession for the first five minutes of the ten-minute period, UNC drew a corner thanks to the skillful dribbling of Matson in the sixth minute. In OT, teams can only put three defenders in the circle for corners as opposed to the traditional four. Telegraphing their play, UNC did not rely on a stick stopper but rather let Matson trap and take the ball. On her first attempt, she drew a foul to earn another corner. On her second try, she dribbled by the flyer to take an open backhand shot that soared through the legs of Spieker and into the cage. Michigan knew who was taking the shot both times, but Matson, who plays on the U.S. National Team, proved too skilled to stop.
This year marks the first time North Carolina captured the title on their home turf as they extended their winning streak to 37-0 at Karen Shelton Stadium. Shelton explained the importance of this win: “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.”
En route to the championship game, each team earned a bye in the first round before UNC topped Stanford 2-0 and Iowa 3-0 while Michgian beat Bucknell 2-0 and Louisville in 1v1’s.
UNC’s victory against Stanford in the quarter finals proved bittersweet as the game marked the final game in Stanford program history. Stanford plans to cut 11 of their 36 varsity programs, including field hockey, claiming budget ramifications from the pandemic. This news shocked the hockey world as Stanford continues to qualify for the tournament year after year and attract Olympic-level talent from around the world. After the game, Matson, who doubled UNC’s lead in the third, shared: “At the end of the day, you know, we came out on top and we’re proud of how we played and we got the W, but it’s not just about Stanford-UNC. It’s about field hockey in general and us trying to grow it in America. I think we made it clear to them that we’re all a family and it’s not even just the two of our teams, it’s the field hockey community coming together.”
While the Stanford program sunsets, Iowa’s team continues to rise. The Hawkeyes lost to UNC in part because of the stellar performance of the Tarheels’ first-years. First-year Katie Dixon opened the scoring on a backhand shot past the left side of Iowa’s goalie. Leonhardt earned the assist, marking Dixon’s first goal and Leonhardt’s first assist in Carolina blue. Leonhardt would score her first goal later in the game off a rebound on a penalty corner. Iowa’s high press almost earned the team multiple goals. As all of their seniors plan to return with their extra year of eligibility, Iowa looks to continue to fight for the national title.
While the drama in the Iowa-UNC semifinal came in the form of multiple lightning delays, Michigan and Louisville played an action-packed semi that culminated in 1v1 shootouts. Elite defense held both teams scoreless in the first half. Michingan struck first, four minutes into the second half, off a goal from first-year Anouk Veen. Veen buried a rocket direct shot from the top of a penalty corner. Louisville went on to dominate the fourth quarter, forcing Michigan to stop five corners over an eight-minute stretch. Louisville pulled their keeper with four minutes to go to bring on another attacking player. The Wolverines were unable to stop the sixth corner as Emilia Kaczmarczyk scored with 1 minute and 18 seconds left in the fourth quarter to even the score at 1-1 and send the match into overtime. The teams fought through two ten-minute overtime periods before proceeding to a shootout.
Michigan’s Katie Anderson finished in the sixth round of penalty shootouts, pulling right twice and squeezing the ball past the post, to bring the team into the national title game. Spieker made an essential stop in the first round of sudden death shootouts after each team converted three of their five attempts, forcing Louisville’s Megan Schnieder to the left and cutting off her shooting angle.
At the end of the championship, UNC led the all-tournament team (a selection of players who performed best across all schools in the tournament). Matson claimed the first spot and all-tournament MVP for the second year in a row. Three Tarheels joined her: Amanda Hendry, Meredith Sholder and Eva Smolenaars. Hendry and Smolenarrs made their third and second all NCAA tournament teams respectively. Three Wolverines — Katie Anderson, Halle O’Neill and Kathryn Peterson, made the team. Iowa’s Anthe Nijziel and Ellie Holley also claimed spots with Louisville’s Aimee Plumb and Alli Bitting rounding out the group.
With two eventful semifinals, a national championship matchup between the No. 1 and No. 2 seed, a record number of finals goals for each team and a stellar overtime to earn the title, this abbreviated spring season to replace the cancelled 2020 fall did not disappoint. This year marked the first time the field hockey semifinals and finals were shown on ESPN, a big win for field hockey and female athletics. As for North Carolina, their athletic dominance continues. This field hockey title means that every four-year UNC student enrolled since 1977 has been on campus for at least one Tarheels national championship title.