UNC coach Erin Matson wants to play in the Olympics. USA Field Hockey says not this year

Erin Matson — one of the most decorated field hockey players in the United States, a former member of Team USA, and national championship-winning head coach at the University of North Carolina — won’t be allowed to try out for the U.S. Olympic team during its trials in Charlotte on Sunday.

USA Field Hockey, the sport’s national governing body, ruled the former UNC star player, who led the Heels to a national championship as their 23-year-old coach last November, ineligible to play, citing its team selection criteria.

The ruling, first reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer, comes after Matson returned to play for the U.S. team at the Pan Am Cup competition last month in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

“I have represented the United States with pride on numerous occasions since I was 13 years old,” Matson said in a statement posted on social media Thursday night, “and I hope to do so again in the future. Back in February, I requested a tryout to attempt to earn a spot on the 2024 Paris Olympics roster. I met all selection criteria as outlined in the USA Field Hockey bylaws. My request wasn’t to be an Olympian. My request was to allow me to try out. USA Field Hockey chose not to grant me that opportunity. Although it leaves my heart heavy, I have moved forward.”

North Carolina field hockey coach Erin Matson walks amongst her players as they stretch prior to their overtime period against Iowa on Sunday, August 27, 2023 at Karen Shelton Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C.
North Carolina field hockey coach Erin Matson walks amongst her players as they stretch prior to their overtime period against Iowa on Sunday, August 27, 2023 at Karen Shelton Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Matson went on to say the selection process should be changed if the U.S. wants to put its best team on the field for international competition.

“I believe change in USA Field Hockey is necessary,” Matson said. “We should be focused on naming the strongest possible roster in order to be successful on the world stage.”

On Thursday afternoon, a USA Field Hockey spokeswoman, in an email to the News & Observer, said the organization is open to further discussion on the issue.

“The U.S. Women’s National Team high performance staff have previously asked Erin to meet in Charlotte and are awaiting a response,” Teryn Brill Galloway, USA Field Hockey’s communications director, said, adding that the organization had no further comment.

Matson said that discussion would be about her potential future involvement for the 2026 World Cup and 2028 Los Angeles Olympics, though.

“As they did not want to discuss the Paris games,” Matson said. “I felt it unfair to take time and attention away from a group in Charlotte that would be training and focusing on 2024. There is plenty of time after the Paris games to talk about my involvement in 2026 and 2028, and I look forward to having that discussion.”

USA Field Hockey’s decision, though, drew outrage at UNC, where two of the school’s trustees hoped to see Matson play in the Olympics this summer.

“For reasons that are beyond comprehension, Erin has been denied the opportunity to try out for the US Olympic Team at the trials in Charlotte on April 7,” John Preyer, UNC Board of Trustees chair, said Thursday in a statement. “Why is US Field Hockey denying the greatest American player in history a chance to compete for a spot on the Olympic team? Erin meets all the criteria and is willing, able, and ready to be in Charlotte on Sunday with the full support of her colleagues and team at Carolina. We trust US Field Hockey will reconsider their earlier statements and give Erin the opportunity to compete.”

In a statement to the Philadelphia Inquirer, USA Field Hockey didn’t rule out Matson competing for the national team in future cycles, but said she didn’t meet the criteria for the current cycle. Matson did not play last year after after going directly from her playing career to the UNC head coaching job.

“The process to trial and be selected for Team USA is a carefully developed process governed by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee for all Olympic Sports,” USA Field Hockey wrote to the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Erin was encouraged to return to field hockey as an athlete and make herself eligible for the next cycle including preparation for the 2026 FIH Hockey World Cup.”

As a player, Matson led UNC to four NCAA championships and won the Honda Award as the nation’s top player three times. During her previous stints with Team USA, she’s played 79 games in outdoor competition, scoring 28 goals.

At the indoor Pan Am Cup last month, Matson scored two goals as the U.S. won all five of its matches.

Matson had originally agreed not to attempt to play in the Olympics as a condition of taking the UNC coaching job last year, preferring to focus her attentions on the team. But after winning the national title, she approached UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham about potentially trying to play in Paris.

“She changed her mind,” Cunningham told the News & Observer. “She came back to me and asked what I thought. I said, ‘You’re only 23, 24 once. If you want to play, we’ll figure it out.’ We had a plan and figured out how she could do it. But she had to be selected and she wasn’t selected.”

Last year, Matson told the News & Observer giving up playing made sense because, she felt “like one or the other would’ve taken a hit” had she tried to pursue playing and coaching. And so “it just came down to what is my gut saying,” she said. “Where is my heart telling me to be?“And it was here. And I will stand with that decision for the rest of my life.”

Given her change of heart, the UNC Board of Trustees wants her to have a chance to play at the Paris Olympics this summer.

“Erin has inspired field hockey fans across generations to love and embrace this great sport,” UNC trustee Jennifer Evans said in a statement on Thursday. “Beyond her many contributions at Carolina, she has been a member of the US national training program since she was 17.

“During her brief ‘sabbatical’ from international competition, she became the youngest Division 1 coach in history to lead a team to a national championship. Erin cares deeply about her sport and her teammates and wants to do everything possible to promote field hockey and help the United States win in Paris. Erin’s skills, conditioning and competitiveness will speak for themselves…she is simply seeking an opportunity to try out.”

Staff writer Luke DeCock contributed to this article