By: K.J Wylie/GCU Staff
Being down two of their star athletes and playing in unusual conditions, the Grand Canyon University Men’s Rugby team overcame that adversity to finish fourth at the USA Rugby College 7s Nationals in Denver, Colorado. The fourth-place finish marks the highest in GCU Men’s Rugby history.
Day one of the tournament consisted of three pool play games for Grand Canyon Friday. Their opening match was versus a familiar opponent in Florida International University, a team the Lopes beat a year ago. Keeping the trend going, GCU shut out FIU in a 26-0 win.
Showing no signs of fatigue after their first match, the Lopes continued to handle business as they beat the University of Nevada, 24-14, just five hours later. The win secured GCU’s spot into the tournament quarterfinals for the second year in a row.
The third and final match of the night was against University of Arizona, with the winner nailing down the #1 seed coming out of pool play. Climate began to play a role (along with the high altitude) as rain started to fall during the match.
“A lot of our guys haven’t played in conditions like that before,” said Lopes’ Head Coach Cam Wyper. “We do our best to simulate a wet ball back home, but this was a different challenge.”
GCU fell behind UofA but always remained within striking distance. In the final minutes of the match, the Lopes constructed a last-chance drive that ended with a turnover, preserving a 22-12 Arizona win.
“I was proud how we performed,” said Wyper. “We got two wins against quality teams, and fought to the very end with Arizona. Even though we lost, we still advanced to the quarterfinals, which was the most important thing to get out of Day One.”
Day Two: The Quarterfinals
Grand Canyon began the second and final day of the tournament facing the University of Wisconsin in round one of elimination play. Flying under the radar on Day One, Wisconsin reached the second day with upsets of each of their pool play opponents.
GCU began the match with a pair of yellow cards, and were forced to play a total of four minutes short a player.
“Wisconsin was a contact-heavy team, and that matched up well with how we like to play,” said Wyper. “We embraced the challenge of being down players, and just kept fighting the whole time.”
Despite their self-inflicted disadvantage, the Lopes forced the game into overtime, where a breakaway run by GCU’s Cam Dodson set up Chris Berry’s game-winning try for a thrilling 19-14 Lopes’ victory.
Making school history, Grand Canyon University reached the semifinals for the first time. Their opponent? Tournament powerhouse Lindenwood University, the team Wyper coached to a national championship in 15s back in 2015.
The Lopes kept the game close, trailing just 7-0 at the half. However, another yellow card to start the second half derailed the Lopes’ momentum, allowing Lindenwood to break the game open, and win, 26-0.
Mentally fatigued from the mistakes, and physically fatigued for match #5, the Lopes had little left in the tank. Grand Canyon suffered their worst defeat of the weekend at the hands of Kutztown University in the 3rd-place match, 29-0.
“Both teams were in tremendous shape,” said Wyper. “It was clear they guys didn’t quite bounce back after losing to Lindenwood, but from an overall standpoint, we played well. If we keep improving like this, I’m confident we can compete in the championship matches next year.”
Grand Canyon caps off their season as the fourth-best team in the nation for 7s, and twelfth-best for 15s, both marks the highest season finishes in the history of the program.