Ashley Hoffman kept hearing about the dreaded “Final Four Curse.”
When Hoffman arrived at Carolina as a freshman, the women’s field hockey team had been to four of the past five national semifinals, with nothing to show for their efforts. As the years ticked by, that fabled curse seemed to gain more and more traction. All of a sudden, Hoffman was a senior who had been to three Final Fours but was still in search of that elusive championship ring.
“I didn’t feel it, but I’d only been here three years,” Hoffman said. “Three years is a lot different than eight.”
If the curse was real, it personally haunted long-time head coach Karen Shelton, who had been on the sidelines for all seven of those heartaches.
When the Tar Heels lost in last year’s national semifinal to eventual national champion Connecticut, the 2018 senior class made a pact to put an end to the drought in an emphatic way.
“We said we’re not losing again,” Hoffman said.
When the team eventually hoisted their seventh national championship trophy last month in Louisville, it finished up a perfect 23-0 season.
Shelton was overjoyed to share the experience of winning a national championship with this group of players.
“It really was a joyful season, and to have it end with that national championship and the elation … not everyone gets to experience that,” Shelton said.
A balanced roster
The Tar Heels cruised through the regular season, thanks to a dominant starting lineup that featured veterans and newcomers alike in critical roles.
The team was anchored by its senior class. They were led by Hoffman, a defensive stopper and “drag flicker” on offense — meaning she trails the play to sling shots on goal, often from outside the shooting circle.
Hoffman was named the Honda Sport Award winner for Field Hockey, awarded to the nation’s most valuable player, on December 21.
“Ashley Hoffman is in another league,” Shelton said.
That senior class also included Malin Evert, a midfielder from Germany. Of Carolina’s 28 players, six come from overseas.
Evert said that this blend of cultures is reflected in the team’s playing style. The international game, particularly in Europe, focuses on skill and technique, while American field hockey emphasizes physical fitness.
“I think it’s a great combination of fit and skill that makes up our team right now,” Evert said.
The team also featured a heralded freshman class, highlighted by freshman phenom Erin Matson.
Matson, a forward, had been playing for the U.S. Women’s National Team, alongside Hoffman, for more than a year before she donned Carolina blue. She had wanted to play for Carolina since attending the program’s summer camp at a young age.
In fact, she’d also been on Shelton’s recruiting radar since she was in middle school, playing on the same club team as the coach’s niece.
“I went to see my niece and my brother said, ‘You gotta see this kid,’” Shelton said.
‘Everyone has a voice’
But talent on paper doesn’t always translate to victories when it matters.
Shelton said the motto of this year’s team was “With each other, for each other.” She owes much of their success to an inclusive environment that valued every team member’s contribution on and off the field.
It’s reflected in the team statistics. UNC led the nation in team scoring, averaging 4.45 goals per game, but not one Tar Heel averaged one goal per game individually.
And where the motto really rang true, the players will tell you, was the team’s overall culture. Gone was an environment in which older voices took precedent — ”a senior dictatorship,” as redshirt junior Catherine Hayden referred to it.
“We made it our goal to make everyone feel comfortable,” Hayden said. “Everyone has a voice. You can say whatever you want and no one’s going to get mad at you. It doesn’t matter how old you are.”
Hayden also credits the team’s sports psychologist, Jeni Shannon, with identifying issues, and helping the team work past them before they festered.
“There were times when we thought we were being great leaders and we weren’t,” Hayden said. “And there were times when we did great things, and she was able to help us recognize what leadership worked for us.”
Going the distance
This year was the program’s inaugural season played at Karen Shelton Stadium. The university finished construction on the new field hockey stadium this fall.
The team christened the venue with a 12-0 record at home. This included hosting the ACC Field Hockey Championship, which they captured over Wake Forest 7-2 in front of college friends, family members and program alumni.
“Everyone was there,” Evert said. “It was a big Carolina crowd, so that was a big point in our season.”
That support traveled with the Tar Heels throughout the NCAA Tournament. The team reached the Final Four without much difficulty, defeating William and Mary and Michigan by scores of 4-0 and 5-2, respectively.
After dispatching Wake for a second time in the Final Four, the Tar Heels awaited a championship game against Maryland, which had been ranked second in the nation for much of the season.
The crowd in Louisville was full of Carolina faithful, including alumni from the program’s 1995 and 2007 undefeated national championship teams. Hoffman said her senior class joked before the game that they needed to win it all, in order to have the same alumni experience.
“The alumni of the final four were wearing their championship rings, and we were looking at them thinking, ‘Oh my God, I need one,’” Hoffman said.
The start of the game was nearly disastrous.
Just 30 seconds in, the Terrapins scored on a deflection. But after closer consideration, the referees called the goal back, because the ball had deflected off of the foot of a Maryland player.
“It’s like holy cow. The first 30 seconds and they’re knocking on our door,” Shelton said. “So, I think that was a wake-up call for our team, and they got going.”
The Tar Heels flipped a switch and pulled ahead on two first-half goals -- a deflection by Megan Duvernois and a rebound from Matson.
During the second half, another one of Shelton’s go-to mantras was evident in the team securing the victory: “defense wins championships.”
“If they don’t score, they don’t win,” Shelton said. “Even with the pressure, we thwarted them in every attack they made.”
As time ticked away, the Tar Heels pinned the ball in the corner, aiming to run out the clock. It became clear that there would be no comeback by Maryland. The celebration was on.
Usually, after victories, the team would gather for some brief remarks from Shelton before greeting their fans. In this moment, though, Shelton briefly delayed the team meeting.
“I said to coach ‘Can we thank our fans?’ and she said, ‘Yeah, go!’” Hayden said. “We all started sprinting towards (all of the fans).”
It was a picturesque end to a perfect season.
“It’s a fairy tale story … I couldn’t be more happy for Coach Shelton and for this program,” Hoffman said. “She really deserves it, and I’m really glad we could bring (a championship) back to Karen Shelton Stadium.”