By Jesse Vineyard/GCU Staff
The champs have returned.
With the offseason and all preseason preparation in the rear-view mirror, Grand Canyon University Men’s Lacrosse returns to the field for another championship run this weekend with their season opener at No. 11 Cal Poly. A heavy schedule lies ahead, and Lopes’ Head Coach Manny Rapkin and his staff know the race to the finish won’t be easy. As an added challenge, the Lopes only have five starters returning, but the top-ranked Lopes still have depth at every position in the hunt for another title.
A demand for GCU will be to replace nearly 70 percent of lost offense from last season. The defending Men’s Collegiate Lacrosse Association Division I Player of the Year, Joe Balestrieri, and his 62-goal season are gone to graduation, as well as Austin Ekeroth and his 25 goals and 15-goal scorer Lucas de Jong. Ryan McDonald, who had 10 goals and 11 assists last year, also is not returning.
Any coach will tell you that replacing that kind of offensive production is difficult. Returning attackman Cam Wengreniuk scored 60 goals last season, but looking for him and another player to put up another 60-goal season together is a tall order. This time around, the offensive output will have to be done as a team.
Junior attackman Cody Clark, who earned four goals and seven assists last season, is one who could be tasked as a complement to Wengreniuk.
“We’re going to have to do it more by committee,” Rapkin said. “We just have to keep breaking the game down into small pieces and build our way up.”
To start the offense, GCU will have returning help from faceoff specialist Cole McLafferty, who won 60 percent of his faceoffs last season – good for second in the Southwestern Lacrosse Conference.
Much like the offense, the defensive side of the field will look a lot different from last season. The Lopes graduated four defensemen while three others will not return, including 1st-Team All-Conference defenseman Brandon Suchand. 1st-Team All-Conference goaltender Alexander Larson also will not return, so GCU will see a near completely rebuilt backline.
To bring leadership to the changes, senior midfielder Josh Gruwell will step into a new role. Playing as a short-stick midfielder last season, Gruwell will convert to long-stick defense in 2018. Already having been a three-year starter, changing a position in his senior year won’t be easy. But Lopes’ Assistant Coach Jeff Guy sees the change as necessary to bring a spark to the defense.
“Josh is an athletic player,” Guy said. “He’s strong and smart. He knows the game pretty well. He’s a good leader on that end for us.”
With Larson gone, senior Brad Hookom will step in as the starting goaltender. As the backup for the last two seasons, Hookom has the experience of knowing what is needed for the defense to succeed.
“He knows the defense really well, he communicates really well and he saves the ball pretty well, too,” Guy said. “I think we’re in a solid spot with him in the cage.”
The defensive midfield will arguably be the biggest position strength for the Lopes this season. Juniors Jack Lamey and Jordan Vicente, both All-Americans, along with senior Weston Gotuzzo, will look to carry the team in the midfield. Lamey led the team with 67 groundballs, and Vicente was third with 41. Gotuzzo was named to the All-Tournament team at the 2017 MCLA National Championships.
“We’re very fortunate to have those three guys,” Guy said. “It’s just about finding some depth that can fill the spots behind those guys.”
On the offensive side of the midfield, freshman Kyle Crews and sophomore midfielder Cooper Snowbarger will front a rebuilt unit. Snowbarger scored 17 goals and had 12 assists as a freshman last season.
“Crews can fill the role Ryan McDonald played last year,” Rapkin said. “Snowbarger and [Cody] Clark are capable of stepping their games up too.”
The first test for all positions will be this weekend as the Lopes travel to southern California for the opener against the No. 11 Cal Poly Mustangs February 23. Two days later, GCU will head down the coast for a matchup with No. 14 California-Santa Barbara. Both teams have their seasons well underway, with each already having played three games. So against two top-15 opponents this early in the season, the Lopes will be tested.
“This is a huge challenge for us,” Rapkin said. “It’s a long ride, and we’re playing two games in 36 hours. This is a real test for us and an important weekend, so the guys have to step up.”