Lopes Down Cal, 13-9, in Tournament Semifinal
ORANGE, Calif. – To get to Saturday’s 60-minute chance at a national championship, the Grand Canyon University men’s lacrosse team has invested hundreds of hours since August.
Ever since new player orientations, film sessions and weight room training began the school year, the Lopes have kept their eyes on the prize that they can hoist Saturday. GCU will face host and defending champion Chapman for the Men’s Collegiate Lacrosse Association Division I national championship at 2:30 p.m.
The Lopes (15-1) earned their way by jumping on California early in Thursday’s semifinal en route to a 13-9 victory at Chapman Stadium.
“When I got recruited here, they had just won the national championship in 2015,” GCU sophomore midfielder Anthony Hughes said. “Ever since I came here, I’ve strived for that. Last year, we got knocked out by Cal Poly in the final four. It means a lot to make it back.”
GCU’s offense was ruthless in seizing the moment, scoring seven first-quarter goals and leading 9-1 when sophomore attacker Cam Wengreniuk scored his third goal with 10:41 to go in the second quarter. Senior attacker Joe Balestrieri, freshman midfielder Cooper Snowbarger and senior midfielder Austin Ekeroth each already had two goals at that point.
“We were ready for what they did on defense and made them pay early,” GCU coach Manny Rapkin said.
The Lopes barely have trailed during their 12-game winning streak but moved the ball well to bury sixth-seeded California (16-3) quickly. Ekeroth assisted on four of the first seven GCU goals.
“More than playing with the lead, it’s about playing with focus and discipline,” Rapkin said. “If you have that and you can adapt to what the other team is doing, you’re going to be successful.”
The Lopes led 10-3 at halftime but the Golden Bears’ frenetic second-half pressure tightened the game. Cal still never got closer than a late three-goal margin before Balestrieri’s sixth goal sealed the game off a Snowbarger assist. After GCU took a 9-1 lead in the game’s first 20 minutes, Balestrieri scored the final four Lopes goals over the remaining 40 minutes.
It was enough to put the Lopes in the MCLA Division I championship game Saturday at 2:30 p.m.
“A year ago today, I wouldn’t have thought I’d be in this position,” Lopes freshman face-off specialist Cole McLafferty said. “It’s awesome. It’s a great feeling. I’m just lucky to be a part of this team.”
Ekeroth and fellow seniors Nathan Smith and Brandon Suchand were members of the Lopes’ first national championship team in 2015, when GCU beat Chapman and Colorado at the final four. Chapman was a 22-0 national champion last season but entered this tournament with a 10-6 record and a No. 9 seed before winning two one-goal tournament games to return to the title game.
“We’re going to try to do our thing,” Rapkin said. “We’re all excited. It’s going to be awesome.”
The MCLA YouTube channel has offered live streaming during the tournament at https://www.youtube.com/user/OfficialMCLA.