The broken hearts of Sunday mended and swelled with joy Monday when the Grand Canyon men’s soccer team earned its third NCAA tournament bid in four seasons with a new twist – a first-round home game.
Mens soccerThe Lopes (15-3-1) gathered Monday morning in a GCU Stadium classroom to watch the NCAA selection show, where their quiet attention turned to cheers when the announcer said, “Go crazy, Grand Canyon” as its name was unveiled on the bracket for a Thursday night first-round home match against Denver (9-3-5). The winner will play at tournament No. 8 seed Clemson in the second round.
“Get your dancing shoes on, boys,” Lopes first-year head coach Leonard Griffin told his team, the first GCU program to host NCAA Division I postseason competition.
Griffin’s team ranked 10th nationally in winning percentaStory Text / Teaserge (.816) and tied for fifth in goals scored (44) to earn the NCAA tournament committee’s respect for an at-large bid and home game. GCU was helped by playing a challenging schedule, which included a 1-0 win at current No. 1 Oregon State in September.
“We kind of knew we were going to be in the tournament, but playing at home is the biggest thing,” said senior Esai Easley, GCU’s WAC Defensive Player of the Year. “It’s just more history being made so I’m super excited. There’s nothing better. Hopefully, we can pack the stadium and get a win against a good side. I couldn’t ask for anything more.
“In my four years, three NCAA tournament appearances is awesome, but we’ve just got to win a game in the NCAAs. That’s the standard now.”
The Lopes won the WAC regular-season championship and have been led by Easley and fellow All-WAC first-team honoree Shaun-Chris Joash, a junior forward who shares the lead in goals (nine) with fifth-year forward Justin Rasmussen.
“Coming here to GCU, it has meant so much to me just be able to leave a legacy like the coaches talk about,” Rasmussen said. “It definitely means a lot, but we’re so much an experienced group that has done this a couple times now. Hopefully, we can channel those thoughts and focus our mentality into getting a win.”
Denver ranks 14th nationally for goals against average at 0.77. The Pioneers lost 3-0 to Oregon State, but notched victories at Virginia and Air Force.
“It’s an honor; it’s a privilege,” said Griffin, who also reached the NCAA tournament as a player and assistant coach. “To come in first year and be able to make it to the NCAA tournament is always something special. The first time as a head coach feels fantastic.
“It’s hard to follow the footsteps of a legend in Schellas Hyndman. He laid a fantastic foundaiton for us to hit the ground running. It’s an honor to be in this spot and hopefully we keep it rolling … I think we have the potential to go and do something special.
GCU was the only team to beat Oregon State at home, where Rasmussen scored on a penalty kick in the 89th minute to break a scoreless tie. The Lopes get to return to their home pitch, where they were 8-0 during the regular season to set the program’s Division I-era record for wins (15).