The pleasure that Lopes men’s rugby players carried out of GCU Stadium on Wednesday night was only made greater by their anticipation for such a victorious night under the lights.
The Lopes had looked forward to their program’s first match at GCU Stadium all season. Many players arrived two hours earlier than coaches requested, giving the Lopes a head start of energy that led to a 42-26 victory against Notre Dame.
Bolstered by a crowd of 2,430 fans, GCU jumped to a 22-6 lead over the first 31 minutes and never took a serious threat from the Fighting Irish again.
“How good’s this?” GCU coach Cameron Wyper said of the stadium turnout. “The atmosphere is something that resembles an international match. It’s crazy that our college guys can experience this for a home match.
“The boys came out of the gates firing. For us, that’s something we’ve really struggled with over the past couple of games. For us to come out with the intensity we did, I was super proud of the effort.”
GCU (7-1-1) scored on tries by Brent Williams, Maceo Brown and Connor Fischman to take that 22-6 lead in the 30th minute. Fischman’s try came on a Lopes counterattack that crossed nearly the entire field with Chris Cheers covering much of the ground on a speedy attack before he pitched to Fischman, who beat Notre Dame with a cutback to score.
Brown, who Wyper called “one of the best players in college rugby,” covered about 60 meters on a first-half try out of a scrum and opened the second half by setting up another try. He broke three tackles before pitching to shifty halfback Austin Taefu, who went the final 10 meters for a 27-13 GCU lead.
Brown was coming off a four-try effort in the Lopes’ 59-10 victory Saturday at Cal State Fullerton, where GCU outscored Fullerton 40-0 in the second half. That win clinched the Gold Coast Conference championship for GCU but still could not approach Wednesday night’s scene at GCU Stadium.
“It was unbelievable,” Brown said. “It was a great experience. I hope we can get more games here in the stadium. We were ecstatic and grateful for the opportunity. This is the best I’ve seen the boys. They were hyped and they energized me.”
It was an important way to close the regular season for GCU because flyhalf Brendon Curle was playing his second match since returning from injury.
The Lopes’ speedy, spread-out attack won the battle of styles against Notre Dame’s physical preference. But GCU mixed it up well too with goal-line stands and late-game substitution VJ Leuta, a 300-pound bowling ball who sent one Irish player airborne and dragged three others to the crowd’s elation.
The Irish were competitive early off “silly” Lopes penalties that led to penalty kicks for nine of Notre Dame’s first 16 points. GCU nearly held Notre Dame to five points over the match’s final 26 minutes but the Irish pushed across a last-second score.
“Our defensive effort was really nice,” Wyper said. “We were getting off the line quickly and putting Notre Dame under a lot of pressure.”
GCU now has three weeks to prepare for its national quarterfinal playoff match in Bellingham, Wash., on April 8.