Earning a spot in the Men’s Collegiate Lacrosse Association’s Division I final four is sweet regardless.
Grand Canyon University men’s lacrosse found a way to make it taste even better Tuesday, knocking out rival Arizona State with the Lopes’ third victory this season against the Sun Devils. The 9-6 victory in Irvine, Calif., advanced top-ranked GCU to a 7:15 p.m. Thursday semifinal against sixth-seeded California (16-2).
“When we came into the league, ASU, Chapman and Colorado were the gold standards and we wanted to be like them,” Lopes coach Manny Rapkin said. “We did it a lot sooner than we expected. There are a lot of teams that work as hard as us but nobody works harder. We’ve got a great group of guys focused on being a part of something bigger than themselves and it showed in how we won today.
“Beating anyone three times is tough. Beating ASU three times is an even greater accomplishment. Hats off to Coach (Todd) MacRobbie, his staff and all their players.”
After tight 9-7 and 10-9 wins against the Sun Devils earlier this season, GCU (14-1) needed a fourth-quarter shutout to beat sixth-seeded ASU for a sixth consecutive time. This one came even more on the strength of a defense that only has allowed six goals in the first two tournament games, putting GCU in its third consecutive MCLA final four.
“Our defense has been our rock all year long,” Rapkin said. “We have lots of talent on offense but Coach (defensive coordinator Jeff) Guy and the defense did it again today.”
After battling ASU tightly for the Southwestern Lacrosse Conference championship nine days earlier, the Lopes were clutching a 7-6 lead Tuesday with time dwindling in the third quarter. That is when GCU senior midfielder Austin Ekeroth broke up a long ASU outlet. Junior defender Christian Essex scooped up the loose ball and forwarded it to junior midfielder Ryan McDonald, who swung the ball wide left to senior midfielder Lucas de Jong. Beating one Sun Devil on the run, de Jong released high and bounced it past ASU’s goalkeeper with two seconds remaining to put GCU ahead 8-6.
“We train ourselves to get the best look every time on offense and to look for opportunities in transition,” Rapkin said. “All our guys are getting better every game at understanding the situation. Lucas knew how much time was on the clock.”
The Lopes defense then withstood five ASU shots on goal and survived a two-minute penalty over the fourth quarter’s first six minutes to keep an 8-6 lead. GCU senior attacker Joe Balestrieri provided the cushion for the Lopes’ 11th consecutive win. As de Jong cleared the middle, Balestrieri penetrated the middle and fired for his third goal of the game and a 9-6 Lopes advantage with 3:12 remaining.
The Lopes got multiple-goal games from Balestrieri (three), McDonald (two) and sophomore attacker Cam Wengreniuk (two) with de Jong and freshman midfielder Cooper Snowbarger each adding a goal. Wengreniuk also added two key first-half assists when he drew double teams.