Lopes Beat 2016 Champ Chapman University, 12-8
ORANGE, Calif. – The finish to a remarkable Grand Canyon University men’s lacrosse season was going to be emotional after Saturday’s championship game, one way or another.
There were tears, but only of joy. There were hugs, only in celebration. There were screams, strictly devoted to the chance to hoist a national championship trophy.
The Lopes claimed their second Men’s Collegiate Lacrosse Association Division I championship in three years by beating defending champion Chapman on its home field Saturday. GCU’s 13th consecutive win was a 12-8 triumph that was worth a national championship and a lifetime of smiles.
“It takes everyone,” Lopes coach Manny Rapkin said. “You have to have a great staff. You have to have talented players who are willing work hard and learn. Our guys have become students of the game. Then, you need all the support that GCU gives you and that’s everywhere – strength and conditioning, enrollment, facilities, the executive team. Everybody has a hand in this.”
Much the same, many players had a hand in proving the Lopes (16-1) were No. 1 on Saturday. The Lopes dominated early face-offs and ball control for the offense to pile up a 6-0 GCU lead in the game’s first 18 minutes. Lopes sophomore attacker Cam Wengreniuk, the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, scored three of those first six GCU goals.
Chapman, whose home fans were outnumbered by visiting GCU fans, stormed back with six unanswered goals to reset the game at a 6-6 halftime tie.
“We took a deep breath at halftime and came out there like it was a new game,” said senior defenseman Brandon Suchand, who was the goalkeeper for GCU’s 2015 national championship.
The Lopes defense only allowed one Chapman goal in each of Saturday’s last two quarters. That was indicative of a GCU defense that only allowed 7.6 goals per game on the season.
“Being able to withstand runs is because you’re strong and fit and that’s Coach Jeff Guy, our defensive coordinator and strength and conditioning coach,” Rapkin said. “We’re able to withstand runs and stay the course because our guys work hard in practice and take care of business in our strength and conditioning program.
“Our guys fight. Our guys are competitive. What you saw on the field just mirrors what we do every day. We battle it out. It’s a contact sport. Our practices are hard. It gets uncomfortable. People push each other. That’s what makes us great.”
Lopes senior midfielder Lucas de Jong’s goal retook the lead midway through the third quarter, starting a three-goal GCU run over two minutes of play. That included a senior Joe Balestrieri goal and a defense-created goal in which junior Weston Gotuzzo’s ground ball set up Suchand in transition for a 9-6 lead.
“Our team fought so hard all year long and our coaches push us to make it easier in those kind of games,” Balestrieri said. “It just feels so good. Our team really put it together.”
The outcome started to become evident midway through the fourth quarter, when GCU senior midfielder Austin Ekeroth added his fourth goal shortly after Wengreniuk scored his fourth goal on a Ryan McDonald assist.
“It was the last game of my career so I didn’t want to end it with a loss,” Ekeroth said. “I knew the feeling after getting one championship but getting one to end my career is very special.”
Wengreniuk was named the tournament MVP after scoring 17 goals and adding four assists in the four MCLA National Championship games.
“Being the tournament MVP is nice, but we honestly won it as a team,” Wengreniuk said. “I wouldn’t have got this if the team didn’t push and if everyone didn’t do their jobs.”
The Lopes have two national championships and three consecutive Final Four visits in the program’s first five seasons as a MCLA Division I team.
“We had a lot of younger guys step up and I hope the seniors left a good mark on this program and showed the younger guys the right way to do it,” Suchand said. “They can improve on how we ran it and do it even better.”