Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is home to the No. 1-ranked women’s field hockey program in the country. But 10 miles up U.S. Highway 15 lives the No. 4-ranked women’s field hockey program – Duke. This rivalry, historically noted as the most intense rivalry in college athletics, is being renewed Friday night and will feature three members of the U.S. Women’s Field Hockey Team.
Erin Matson, a freshman at the University of North Carolina, will play in her first Duke-UNC showdown, while senior teammate Ashley Hoffman will look to improve to 4-2 in her career against Duke. On the other side, Duke junior Margaux Paolino hopes to protect her home field.
While fierce in competition, the women are great friends off the field. Paolino and Matson have known each other since fourth grade and have played together through USA Field Hockey.
“At the end of the day, we want the best for each other, but when we’re on the field and playing for our schools, it’s like we don’t even know each other,” Paolino said of this week’s matchup.
“Margaux is one of the most competitive people I know,” Hoffman added. “It doesn’t matter how close we are off the field, she’ll push me a little hard during this game.”
Don’t tell their teammates, but Paolino, Hoffman and Matson sometimes find themselves hanging out together. They’ll meet to watch national team film, call in to Team USA meetings together and even pass the ball around. Each has to pinch herself when reminded she’s on the U.S. Women’s Field Hockey Team.
Hoffman got the nod while at a training camp in Chula Vista, California. Paolino began her career on the team as a trial before earning her full-time roster spot.
When Matson was called up to the national team, she remembers calling her parents yelling, “Mom! Dad! I’m going to New Zealand!”
The women have played in tournaments across the globe – from New Zealand to South Africa to Argentina to England.
“We are so lucky to travel and experience different cultures,” Matson says. “The World Cup game in London is my favorite game ever. The atmosphere was nuts.”
Matson was playing on the U.S. Women’s National Team at just 16 years old. But now she must learn to not only play for top-ranked UNC, but also balance academics at the prestigious university. She admits college academics have been more than she expected.
“It’s almost like balancing two lives,” Matson said. “I have calendars everywhere.”
Her captain, Hoffman, is in her senior year now and still finds it challenging, “It’s not just the three-hour practices, it’s recovery, watching film, lift sessions, and then you’re exhausted and still need to do homework.” Still, Hoffman has eyes on grad school following this season.
Student-athletes make many sacrifices. But from these sacrifices, the elite emerge.
“There is never really a break from field hockey,” Paolino said. “We give up our winter break and spring break to train with the national team, and we find every open weekend to drive up to Lancaster [Pennsylvania] to be with the them.”
Duke and UNC are no strangers to the U.S. Women’s National Team. Team USA currently features four UNC alumni (Jaclyn Briggs, Lauren Moyer, Caitlin Van Sickle and Julia Young) and two Duke alumni (Lauren Blazing and Stefanie Fee).
For Hoffman, she’s dreamt of playing for UNC since witnessing the Tar Heels in the national championship when she was in eighth grade. And with a 7-0 start to the season, this may be the season that she can be crowned a national champion.
There is no denying that UNC and Duke are two of the top field hockey programs in the country – one of these teams has played in the NCAA championship game 11 of the last 15 seasons. And when they meet again tonight, the rivalry will be renewed, and the friendship will be put on hold.