Momentum for the GCU men’s lacrosse team’s division-clinching victory Friday night started early, as in last summer.
Lopes freshman and Tucson native Cole McLafferty was leaning toward playing for Arizona until GCU coach Manny Rapkin swung him to the north in June.
It was a momentum swing that carried into April with McLafferty dominating face-offs Friday in the second-ranked Lopes’ 18-7 victory against the 23rd-ranked Wildcats. In front of 1,010 fans at GCU Stadium, the Lopes clinched their third consecutive South Division championship in the Southwestern Lacrosse Conference.
“My whole chip on my shoulder was that I wanted to play for the seniors,” McLafferty said after the Lopes seniors played the last of this season’s three GCU Stadium games. “I wanted to play for my team. I don’t play for myself or personal stats and I didn’t want to let my teammates down. The one thing I learned as a freshman is I have to take each face-off one at a time.”
With McLafferty giving GCU possession nearly every face-off, the Lopes (9-1) kept control early but were in a 1-1 tie until they scored four goals in in the final 8:04 of the first quarter. Lopes senior attack Joe Balestrieri scored three of his four goals in the first quarter, including a low sidearm goal from the left side to open scoring.
GCU sophomore attacker Cam Wengreniuk scored with seven seconds remaining in the first quarter and added GCU’s next two goals, getting two off senior midfielder Austin Ekeroth assists and the other after taking a UA check.
“We dominated the first 20 minutes and then we kind of lost our focus,” Rapkin said. “We let down a little bit and stopped scoring goals. We were out of sorts, not staying with the plan and guys were trying to do too much on their own. The defense played great and they’re getting better every week.”
After Lopes senior midfielder Lucas de Jong scored after being knocked down in front of the net early in the third quarter, the Lopes went scoreless for 11 minutes but still held a 9-4 lead. They then scored the game’s next six goals, including two more by Wengreniuk on his five-goal night.
McLafferty won 11 ground balls while senior defenseman Brandon Suchand added nine ground balls for a defense that continues to thrive. GCU, now on a six-game winning streak, is allowing 7.3 goals per game this season.
“We came out here ready to go,” Suchand said. “You could tell the mentality and the mindset of everyone who walked on the field. There was a calmness. We knew were going to come out and get after it.”
With their sixth win against a top-25 team, the Lopes claimed their fourth SLC South title in the past five years and earned a first-round bye in the conference tournament later this month.
“That’s our goal every year and it’s not easy,” Rapkin said. “That’s a huge accomplishment that means a lot. Normally, I don’t like a week off but we’re a little banged up so it will help us.”
The Lopes close the regular season on April 15, when they play No. 20 San Diego State at 1 p.m. on GCU’s Prescott Field.