Lopes overcome obstacles in inaugural season
By: Julie Laugel/GCU Club Sports Writing Staff
Establishing a new program. Adapting to a new coaching staff. Recruiting athletes. Learning new positions.
All while going through a global pandemic.
Despite the many obstacles thrown at them in the 2020-21 season, the Grand Canyon University Water Polo team always found a way to rise above and continue to progress. After months of practices, the Lopes opened up their inaugural spring season with two matches against Ottawa University.
Being a new program, the Lopes had to learn to work well together quickly.
“The biggest challenge was getting everyone on the same page because they were doing so many different things,” said Lopes’ Assistant Coach Troy Leeper.
“We had people join the team who’ve never played water polo before, and then we had people who’ve played their entire life,” added Lopes’ Head Coach Sheri Hopper. “It was a big learning curve between those two types of players in teaching them the drills and how to communicate.”
Outside of practices, the Lopes found other creative ways to stay competitive, such as scrimmaging the GCU Club Swimming team, and participating in “buddy days,” where the team acted as mentors for youth players at Mesa Water Polo.
Practices and competition helped improve the players’ skills, but the team still struggled to work cohesively.
“We started the season with 32 athletes but lost many (including former student head coach Tyler Lowell) due to COVID,” said Hopper. “There were so many limitations, and a lot of the athletes were freshmen, so it was difficult for us to create that community feeling.”
In order to build that team rapport, the Lopes began participating in team bonding activities, including a weekly bible study, established by Lopes’ team captain Autumn Hilderbrand.
“It gave them some grounding, and whatever verses (Hilderbrand) picked, it felt like it really drew to the practice as well, and they applied it to how we were building a team,” said Hopper. “We needed that foundation, and it seemed to really help build that family aspect.”
With their limited number of players, the newfound team chemistry was important when the time for competition came.
The Lopes competed co-ed in two matches against Ottawa University, but the Spirit’s extra years of experience and higher ratio of men to women led them to victory. GCU’s Beau Merritt, who was voted MVP of the season along with Erica Rietmann, led the team with eight total goals between the two matches.
“We had never played together other than at scrimmages, so even though we lost, it solidified what we built as a team, and made us realize that we play well together,” said Hilderbrand.
With their first competition and jitters out of the way, the Lopes look forward to improving next season and the potential to compete with separate men’s and women’s teams.
“We built more than a water polo team. We built our own water polo family,” said Hilderbrand. “I’m looking forward to being a part of the College Water Polo Association and getting to play some competitive games without always playing with and relying on the boys.”
Interested in GCU Water Polo? Contact Head Coach Sheri Hopper for more information!