By Jesse Vineyard/GCU Staff
The season may have ended sooner than hoped, but there is still plenty to look back on for Grand Canyon University Men’s Lacrosse. This season finished the seventh year of the program, and the seventh straight year with a winning record. Including 2012’s Division II team, this year also culminated with the sixth appearance at the Men’s Collegiate Lacrosse Association (MCLA) National Tournament, four straight for the Lopes.
The Lopes’ 2018 campaign featured a 10-1 victory under the lights at GCU Stadium against fellow MCLA Tournament participant Boston College. The one goal allowed was the second-lowest ever behind the only shutout in program history: a 10-0 win over the University of California-Irvine in 2012 as a DII team. GCU continued their win streak of 19 games dating back to 2017 – the longest such streak in program history – until falling, 7-6, to Colorado State in late March. Two days later, GCU faced their biggest adversity of the season when they were taken down by the University of Colorado, 12-11. That loss marked just the second time in the last five seasons the Lopes have lost two straight.
Any doubt outsiders may have brought up after those losses was quickly erased when the Lopes defeated Arizona State, 16-9, the next weekend in what Lopes’ Head Coach Manny Rapkin said was “the best game of the year” for the offense. That win was also the seventh straight win against ASU, dating back to 2014.
GCU also earned multiple end-of-season awards. Jack Lamey received the prestigious Godekeraw Award for best scholar-athlete in the MCLA, while also joining his midfield partner Jordan Vicente as First-Team All-Conference in the Southwestern Lacrosse Conference and First-Team All-American selections. The two joined attack teammates Cam Wengreniuk and Cody Clark who were named as Honorable Mention All-Americans.
With the season wrapped up, Rapkin now looks back at how the season came to be overall, and what can be expected moving forward for the program in this 2018 season retrospective.
Looking back to the start of the year, what kind of improvements were made as the year went on?
We didn’t have as much offensive talent, and we were much younger than we were in the 2017 season. I think individually a lot of guys got better. The problem was that on game day, we weren’t able to execute, and that was our problem in our four losses. We weren’t able to execute offensively.
Coming out of that, what would you have liked to see more of?
Really seeing the big picture. We have to do better offensively in the coming year. See the big picture, understand what our goals are and know what our approach is regarding changes for each game. We have to be able to execute the game plan. What that meant this year was controlling the tempo of games. You are supposed to tailor your plan to the type of team that you have. You try to maximize their positives, maximize their talent and try to minimize some of their shortcomings. We just weren’t able to maximize our talent on offense and minimize our shortcomings.
What were some of the lessons learned about the talent you do have on the offensive side?
We have guys that want to compete, and really, now it’s about refining our game. It all goes back to that. We had enough talent to make it to the winner’s circle this year, but we lost four games. We need to really step up to the next level of lacrosse. It goes past individual effort, and moves into collaborating with all the individuals, and getting people to know what their job is, and to do their job.
Can you take those four losses and use them as any more motivation for next year?
I don’t know about motivation. We don’t really use them for anything. The reality is, the best way the staff can motivate a team is by getting them prepared, and having them believe in the plan. Then it’s really up to everyone individually to look at the places they succeeded and the places that they failed. Because in my estimation, we did not reach our potential this year.
Were there any individual players that you thought really made a big step this year?
Kyle Crews, a freshman. We didn’t expect him to be on the field much this year. He really surprised us and contributed in every game this year. D.J. Hazell, a freshman defenseman, started 11 games this year, and really developed into a great cover guy. We had more of an expectation with D.J. than we did with Kyle, but nonetheless, he really impressed us. Cian Peterson stepped his game up from his freshman year. He became a producer, led us in assists, scored goals, and definitely his on-field performance was a pleasant surprise.
You mentioned the youth of the team. Kyle, D.J., Cian being examples. What does the youth of this year’s team say about the future? What do you expect from those guys?
It’s a lot easier to be a freshman playing a role, and a freshman coming in with a lower expectation. The biggest step and the toughest transition year is from the freshman to sophomore year. Now these guys are going to be expected to step into leadership roles. Instead of being covered by the No. 3 guy, they’re going to be covered by the No. 1 or No. 2 guy. If they were covering the No. 3 guy, now they’ll be covering the 1 or 2. Everything changes now. This is the toughest transition for a freshman who plays a lot. This is where I think the real challenge comes in-from a freshman starter to a sophomore starter.
As a whole, how hard is it to repeat, and what does that say about the MCLA?
To do it back-to-back is a real challenge. All championship teams have a real challenge next year. From one year to the next, they are totally different teams. Even if you returned 80 percent of your starters, it’s a different team. Not only are 20 percent of your starters different, the supporting cast is different. Practices could be different. People don’t realize and don’t see the process. They look at stats, and who the returners are, but people forget that from one year to the next, especially in college sports, teams are substantially different teams. Not just the starters, but also the supporting cast and the people that are challenging the starters in practice. If you quantify all of that, you are back with a totally different team. So how hard is it to repeat? You don’t have the same team again. Even the guys that come back, they might not have that same drive, or might not be willing to do as much as they did the year before. Every year at the national tournament, you can see a few teams emerge that look like they’re willing and able to do everything and anything on the field to get to the championship podium. This year, Michigan State looked like that team. Especially during championship week, it’s about details and execution. And the teams that are really focused, engaged and have the desire are usually the ones who win it all.
What does the senior class mean to you, and how do replace a group like that?
You don’t replace that group. Just like we couldn’t replace the group from the year before. Not only were they good, they were good people. They were game day performers, and they were really good people. We’re going to miss them all.
Are you able to call the season a success?
The way we define success is, ‘Did we reach our potential?’ Regardless of where we end up at the end of the year, that’s the most important thing to us. Wins, conference championships, making it to the tournament for the sixth time in seven years, finishing in the top 10 four years in a row – those are all great accomplishments and I consider them all successes. In one sense, yeah, I do think it was a success. You can’t deny winning nine games, winning our division and making it to the national tournament. But the one that’s really important to the coaching staff is, ‘Did we reach our potential individually and as a team?’ I think we fell short of that.
Do you still think the potential is there to meet that success for next season?
Every team has the opportunity to reach their potential every year. Our approach is if we concentrate on reaching our potential and concentrate on the process, becoming better people and better lacrosse players, then the results can take care of themselves. We’re not a results-driven program, we’re a process-driven program. We try to win the day. We figure that if we can win the day all year long, we’ll end up being in a good position to win all the other things.