24 Nov 2021 | 09:33 | Football
A new bit of decor in the Grand Canyon men’s soccer locker room greeted the Lopes players upon every entrance this season.
The photo mural with the words “Legacy” and “Leave yours” was what they saw upon exiting their season Thursday night, when a 1-0 NCAA tournament loss to Denver still included a legacy left by a starting lineup with only two underclassmen.
Marios AndreouThe departing class, some of which made their third NCAA tournament appearance in four years, was startled by the swift sting of elimination but only needed to look around to reflect on the marks made:
This team was the first GCU sport to host a NCAA Division I postseason event.
The game drew 3,124 fans, giving GCU two of the top 28 most-attended games in college soccer this season.
The Lopes (15-4-1) finished with a Division I-era program record for victories and, with a No. 12 ranking in NCAA Rating Percentage Index, had an argument to be among the 16 teams that received first-round byes.
Instead, the team riding a 13-game home winning streak into Sunday’s WAC Tournament championship had its quest for the program’s first NCAA tournament win dashed at home on a 24th-minute goal Thursday night.
“I was standing out there at half line afterward and kind of taking it all in, looking at the stadium, thanking the Havocs for the final time, just appreciating the beauty of what I had,” GCU fifth-year forward Justin Rasmussen said. “It’s easy to take for granted to play here. I try to let the younger guys know that you’ve got to appreciate every time you step on the field here because this is the best stadium in college soccer, hands down.
Justin Rasmussen”Soon enough, I’ll be able to take a step back and appreciate everything that I’ve accomplished here personally. Being part of the history we’ve had here for the team has meant everything for me.”
Rasmussen shared the team lead in goals (nine) this season with junior forward Shaun-Chris Joash, but the Lopes played their most important match without Joash after he picked up his eighth yellow card in the WAC Tournament championship.
The task was already going to be hard enough to score against Denver with Joash. The Pioneers (10-3-5) ranked 14th nationally for goals against average, having only allowed 14 on the season. Denver set up a five-man back line that proved to be a wall to GCU, whose scoring offense had been ranked 13th nationally.
The Lopes put only three shots on goal for the game, including one in the second half when they tried to intensify the attack and took 10 shots.
“We knew that first goal was going to be really important,” GCU head coach Leonard Griffin said. “We knew their style of play and how they’d come out. They’re a very organized, disciplined defensive team. Once they got that early goal, it’s hard to break them down. You need a lot in the attack and it has to be pinpoint when you get in that final third.”
Denver scored off a backfield turnover in the first half, when Pioneers junior midfielder Kengo Ohira scored his fourth goal of the season (all in the past eight games) on a rocket that found the top-left corner of the net.
“Obviously, they’re a top team,” Denver head coach Jamie Franks said. “Forty-four goals scored, so we knew that we’d have to defend tonight and suffer a little bit if we wanted to get this result.
“They’re a group that thrives in transition, so we wanted to make sure that the game didn’t go back and forth.”
GCU senior goalkeeper Anthony Munoz made two diving saves to keep the deficit at 1-0 and senior defender Esai Easley, the WAC Defensive Player of the Year, continuously cleared more of the Pioneers’ scoring threats.
Even as the Lopes’ second-half attack increased, they could not penetrate Denver with so many Pioneers players lined up behind the ball. GCU shots went wide. Free kicks went into a wall. Scoring chances were not cleanly received.Esai Easley
“Definitely frustrating to lose and not to be able to get a goal in there,” Rasmussen said. “It’s very tough to break down five in the back when they’ve got three center backs and extra guys to be able to combat our wing backs.”
GCU entered the NCAA tournament aiming for its seventh shutout of the season, but it wound up being Denver’s seventh shutout.
“It’s pretty emotional right now,” Easley said. “I gave everything I stepped on the field for this program, this school and for the coaches and my teammates. I did the best I could and I’m really proud of the guys. I’m proud to be able to call myself a Lope. I’m super-excited because I think it’s a bright future. The coaches have it going in the right direction.”
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