By Jesse Vineyard/GCU Staff
The long season came to an abrupt end, but Grand Canyon University Ultimate Frisbee came away with many positives to take forward.
At the sectionals for the USA Ultimate Desert D-1 College Conference Championships in Albuquerque, New Mexico last weekend, the Lopes went 0-4, taking losses to the University of New Mexico, 13-6, Northern Arizona University, 13-6, Arizona State University, 13-7, and the University of Arizona, 13-6. In the five-team, round robin tournament, only the top three teams of UA, NAU and ASU earned bids to regional play, meaning the bottom two of UNM and GCU had their seasons end.
Regardless of how the year finished, the Lopes still found many highlights coming out of the weekend. One of the biggest wasn’t with the play during games. Early in the year, GCU’s team captains of Micah Gross and Adam Barth, stated that creating a competitive culture would be a major challenge for the young program. As the season went on, they saw a specific aspect of that culture slowly becoming a part of their identity.
“It’s been our mindset,” said Gross. “Coming into the season, a lot of people were expecting to do what they’ve done in past years, and that’s go to some practices, play a little bit and then call it a season. But now at the end of the year, it’s very different. We are going to compete as a team, and we are going to work hard. We want to take these steps and make ourselves more competitive.”
New Mexico and the other three Arizona schools have been routine opponents so far this season for the Lopes. Playing opponents at least three times each will bring a certain familiarity to the games, but even GCU’s opponents have noticed the progress made.
“NAU is always the first to say it that each time we have played them, we have gotten better,” Gross said. “Their captains have come up to us on multiple occasions saying that they’re having to change things as a program themselves with how they would play us differently.”
That competitive nature is one reason why GCU’s opponents have seen the improvement. Under tough conditions at the Trouble In Vegas Tournament two weeks ago, the Lopes learned to take that same effort – no matter the circumstances – and add it to their growing development. Even after an 0-4 weekend, the sting of defeats was quickly tossed aside once the team put together their collective performance.
“Of course losing wasn’t fun, but everyone felt like we all put in a really good effort,” Barth said. “We were able to see our hard work pay off. I couldn’t be more proud of how the team improved and grew throughout the year.”
Not only was the competitive culture visible on the field, but the highlights of many of the first-year players backed it up. Junior Josh Walsh led the Lopes with 50 goals on the year, while freshman Jacob Vangerpen was second with 32. Gross, a second-year player, was first with 50 assists, but first-year players Grant Goodman and Brandon Watabe were second and third on the team with 24 and 23 assists, respectively.
As the team transitioned from a program that merely existed to one that is growing competitively, the next challenge will be to retain the talent, and add to it for next season. The unique environment of Ultimate Frisbee means that job isn’t placed on any one person. Yet Lopes’ Head Coach Josh Kohl is already starting to lay the groundwork in the hopes that the large core of the team will return.
“We’ve lost players in the past with a lot of potential from their freshman year to their sophomore year,” Kohl said. “I’ve talked with a lot of them individually about how I see their year going, and I’ve really tried to stress with them making personal goals and continuing their development by playing Club Ultimate.”
The goal for next year will be to take another step. Whether or not that means playing beyond sectionals – and earning the first-ever berth at regionals – remains to be seen. What is certain for the team is that if the top talent returns, and another class of first-year talent comes in, the Lopes can add more wins to the schedule next year. In order for that to happen, though, Kohl says the upcoming summer will be important for everyone to buy into the team’s pending success.
“On top of [playing club], it’s easy to be passive and talk about things that went wrong and expect others to fix them,” Kohl said. “It’s a harder thing to do to bring that upon yourself, and do what you can to fix those things. Instead of saying, ‘We need to do this’, it’s ‘I need to do this.’ That’s how you’re going to be successful.”