GCU finishes virus-shortened season 4-2
By: Mack Drake/GCU Staff
Photo Credit: Gillian Rea
Two days prior to his regular season finale against the University of California, Davis, Grand Canyon University Men’s Rugby Head Coach Sean O’Leary was busy coming up with the best way to honor his 14 seniors for what was to be Senior Day at the GCU Practice Soccer Field.
That celebration never came.
Less than 48 hours later, UC Davis announced its decision to forego the trip to the desert, citing health concerns over the growing coronavirus pandemic. Not long after that, the 2020 D1A Playoffs and National Championships were canceled for the same reason as the United States began to ramp up its hibernation efforts.
Just like that, before O’Leary could blink, the season was over.
“It was hugely disappointing,” O’Leary said. “I’m always harder on our team than anybody else, but even I have to admit that we were playing our best rugby of the season going into the UC Davis game.
“It all happened so quickly. Probably the worst part of it all was that we weren’t able to send off our seniors in the way they deserved. With this being my first year as the coach here, those guys will always be special to me.”
The Lopes were indeed rolling.
GCU finished the virus-shortened season with a 4-2 mark and had just come off a 45-3 shellacking of San Diego State. The Lopes had also pitched a Bay Area shutout in a dominant 30-0 victory over Santa Clara University a week prior to that.
Winning big was a common theme for this GCU squad. In its four wins, the Lopes outscored opponents by a dazzling combined score of 150-30.
GCU was hoping to keep that trend rolling in the postseason. The Lopes were slated to play the University of California, Berkeley in the opening round of the D1A Playoffs.
“The game against San Diego State was our most complete match of the year,” O’Leary reflected. “We were having our best training sessions as well. The guys knew they were putting it all together at the right time. We were coming with guns blazing.”
O’Leary’s first year at the helm was largely spent instilling a new culture in the program – one built on accountability, respect, fun and doing things the right way, on and off the field.
The new attitude clearly worked.
“Everyone became so tight with each other,” O’Leary said. “Everyone really bought into the culture. They really got what I was trying to do. I really didn’t expect that much buy-in when I arrived here, but you have to give the players the credit.”
Senior leaders like Roddy Hamilton, Lincoln Sii, Ronnie Sallee, Bo Eperson and Riley Steed — to name just a few — were critical in setting a blueprint for O’Leary’s new and improved culture.
Lopes’ junior vice captain Royce Fisher was also instrumental in establishing GCU’s new foundation.
“I love to work with players, but you have to have good leaders on the team who will promote what you’re trying to do as a coaching staff,” O’Leary said. “We had that here this season.”
As senior-dominant as this year’s team was, the underclassmen provided a boost that even O’Leary wasn’t expecting.
Logan Hill, the team’s starting scrum-half, was a freshman phenom. Fellow freshmen trailblazers Rayden Tuaua and Moses Mercado rotated at forward, and gave the Lopes great energy and effort at that position all year.
“The underclassmen production was a massive surprise,” O’Leary said. “Underclassmen aren’t supposed to make a huge impact immediately, but that’s what they did. Logan, Rayden and Moses jumped off the page right away.”
What now? It’s the obvious question for a team that graduates 14 seniors, many of whom played such a significant role.
O’Leary’s joyful and exuberant Irish personality will produce high-quality domestic and international recruits. With the 2020 season officially in the books, O’Leary said he and his coaching staff have already turned their attention to the recruiting trail.
As for the current players, the training doesn’t stop. With gyms across the nation closed for business due to the pandemic, O’Leary and his staff sent custom-made, at-home workouts that place a heavy emphasis on challenging bodyweight exercises to every player on the team.
“There’s always two ways to look at everything,” O’Leary said. “I see this as a massive opportunity for our current players. This is a chance to put the work in on their schoolwork. This is a chance to build strength in different ways using things around the house. We expect to come out of this crisis better than ever.”
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