CARLSBAD, Calif. – No matter how the Grand Canyon University men’s lacrosse team won the Southwestern Lacrosse Conference championship, the Lopes players would have stormed the field, hugged each other and kissed the trophy as they did Sunday.
How they got to that moment made the achievement sweeter and more appreciated. No. 1 GCU trailed rival No. 7 Arizona State in the fourth quarter before pulling out a 10-9 victory to claim its second SLC championship in three years.
ASU led 8-7 early in the third quarter and tied the game with 5:45 to play before Lopes senior attacker Joe Balestrieri capped a tournament performance that showed why he was named SLC Offensive Player of the Year. Hustling for a ground ball, GCU senior midfielder Lucas de Jong set up Balestrieri on the right side, where he fired a side-armed laser high into the net for his fourth goal and a 10-9 Lopes lead with 4:48 to play.
“Honestly, I like to win by a lot,” said Balestrieri, who also scored seven goals in Friday’s SLC semifinal victory against California-Santa Barbara. “This makes my nerves go crazy but our team and our defense put it together. We just held it together, thank God.
“My teammates work hard off ball and are getting me open. I have to give it to everybody else. All I do is shoot the ball in the net. It’s not that hard.”
It came easily to GCU (12-1) early in the game when the Lopes jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the game’s first seven minutes. Lopes turnovers helped ASU hang until the game was tied at 4-4 and nearly stayed that way for the final 9:25 of the half. But the Lopes defense jumped an ASU play out of a time out, causing a turnover and setting up a Balestrieri goal six seconds before the halftime horn for a 5-4 GCU lead.
The championship game was tied or a one-goal game for the final 41 minutes of play.
“We did not play our best game but it is probably the best we battled all year,” GCU coach Manny Rapkin said.
“These are the games that make you tough. Tight games make you better. Tight games against great teams like Arizona State make you really good. Tight games against great teams in a conference championship really make you tough and tested. These experiences have to help us going forward in the MCLA tournament.”
GCU will open the national tournament with a May 8 first-round game against No. 16 Michigan State in Irvine, Calif.
One of the keys to the Lopes’ ninth consecutive victory was a new offensive play that Rapkin implemented in the fourth quarter. It set up consecutive goals by senior midfielder Austin Ekeroth just after ASU had taken an 8-7 lead, the Lopes’ first fourth-quarter deficit during its nine-game winning streak.
“They (the Sun Devils) are a good team and they can defend,” Rapkin said. “We kind of ran though all our stuff so we had to come up with something new. We got Austin down low. He was feeling good in the fourth quarter so we wanted to set some down picks for him at GLE (goal line extended). He came off and took care of business.”
Beyond Balestrieri’s four goals and Ekeroth’s three goals, de Jong, sophomore midfielder Jordan Vicente and junior midfielder Ryan McDonald each scored a goal Sunday. Six GCU freshmen played major roles with draws, on attacks and in the midfield.
“Last year, we fell just shy of winning it,” Ekeroth said of the SLC championship. “The year before, we won the SLC championship and it led to a national championship so we’re hoping for the same this year.”