Thrilling 12-11 comeback win for men finishes off momentous weekend in Goodyear
By: Jim Howell/GCU Club Sports Information Director
Trailing by four goals just hours after their first win ever, the Grand Canyon University Men’s Water Polo team stormed back in the final 12 minutes of play to stun the University of Arizona, 12-11, Sunday afternoon in the final match of the Arizona Collegiate Series Tournament at the Southwest Valley YMCA in Goodyear. It was the second win in three games after the Lopes opened the day with an 8-4 victory over Northern Arizona University – the first victory in GCU Men’s Water Polo history – then suffered their first loss of the weekend to vaunted Ottawa University, 21-7. All of that came 24 hours after the young program enjoyed its first-ever win in co-ed play, a 13-7 win over NAU.
Saturday: Co-Ed Play: GCU 13, Northern Arizona 7
In some ways, the Lopes felt like they were staring at their own 2020-21 team when they gazed at the Lumberjacks’ team, a squad that – like the Lopes a year ago – had to play a mix of men and women together because their numbers wouldn’t allow them to field a full team otherwise. That forced the Lopes to join their team together in the pool for the first time since last April, when they played their first two matches despite a COVID-shortened season, and left some unknowns going into the match.
“We had no expectations because we hadn’t seen NAU, so we prepared like it was a team that could really beat us,” said Lopes’ senior whole set defender Autumn Hilderbrand. “It was better not to know about them so we wouldn’t have an overconfident mindset.”
With three men’s games assured the next day, Lopes’ Head Coach Sheri Hopper decided to rest several of the men’s players, which energized the team enough for the Lopes to build a 7-3 halftime lead. When Hopper started seeing several GCU breakaways, which helped break the game open in the second half, she forced the team to go back to the basics.
“Coach wanted us to run play sets instead of just run away from NAU, which helped us in the fourth quarter,” said Lopes’ sophomore whole set defender Jordan Stephens. “We had to figure out as a team how to mix the skill sets of our men and our women to better execute what plays were called.”
The balanced attack was led by Michael Crouch and Beau Merritt, who each scored four goals for the Lopes, while Britni Tisdale added a trio of goals.
Sunday: Men’s Game 1: GCU 8, Northern Arizona 4
Despite NAU staying co-ed to fully compete, the Lopes’ Men took the pool, and very quickly fell behind, 1-0.
It was a wakeup call.
“NAU is evenly skilled, and doesn’t showboat,” said Lopes’ sophomore set guard Spencer Walters. “We went into it not understanding that they’re still a very well-versed team. We thought we could just overpower them, and I’m certain we learned our lesson from that.”
The Lopes put the defensive clamps on after that, shutting out the Lumberjacks for the remainder of the half. GCU still needed some extra adrenaline after not capitalizing on their first 6-on-5 man up situation, but converted their next one to take a 4-1 lead at the break, and after losing their first two sprints of the second half, came back to win the next few after that. Beau Merritt matched NAU’s total with his second straight four-goal performance to lead the Lopes to their first-ever men’s win.
Sunday: Men’s Game 2: Ottawa 21, GCU 7
Despite the one-sided final score, the Lopes came away pleased by the progress they’ve made since taking it on the chin from the Spirit twice last year, followed by a lopsided loss to OUAZ in the season opener three weeks ago.
“The level that Ottawa is at is a wholly different type of water polo, and it’s something that we want to achieve,” said Walters. “It gave us a good opportunity to compare how we play water polo in relation to their level, so that we can see what we need to work on to make it to that level.”
Merritt again led the way with three goals for the Lopes.
Sunday: Men’s Game 3: GCU 12, Arizona 11
The second major milestone in the span of six hours came in nailbiting fashion, since the fatigued Lopes trailed for the first 30 minutes of the match. After a 3-3 first quarter, the Wildcats tried to run away with it in the second, heading to halftime with an 8-4 edge. The teams traded a pair of goals each in the first four minutes of the third quarter until a seemingly disastrous play – a deflected skip shot that bloodied the nose of Lopes’ goalie Kyle Mann, sending him to the sideline – became GCU’s final wakeup call of the day. Freshman Nathan Ehlert – who had only seen time in goal during scrimmages in his brief Lopes’ career – came in and shut down the U of A offense. In the final 12 minutes, Ehlert stopped five of UA’s six shots on goal (including two on breakaway attempts), which allowed the Lopes to storm back to tie the game in the final five minutes. Then with just under two minutes left, Walters charged the middle of the Wildcats’ defense, took a quick pass, and redirected it into the UA goal for the game-winner.
“The men really came from not having a team at the beginning of the year to placing third out of five teams in a tournament where we didn’t expect to win games,” said Stephens. “A team that had only played one game at a time up until Sunday played three games in one day and gave it their all to win two of them. It just shows how much farther this program can go.”