Grand Canyon begins defense of 2015 title as men's lacrosse team to beat

The Grand Canyon University men’s lacrosse team starts the 2016 campaign as the team to beat, both as defending national champions of the Men’s Collegiate Lacrosse Association’s (MCLA) Division I, and as the projected No. 1 squad this year in several polls.

That doesn’t daunt veteran head coach Manny Rapkin, a former lacrosse and football player at New York’s Division I Siena College.

“Even though we graduated five All-Americans, we have some players coming in behind them who we think will develop into All-Americans,” said Rapkin. The 55-year-old head coach is understated, and his workmanlike approach helps bring talented recruits each year to Phoenix and convert them into some of the nation’s best players at the collegiate level.

The ‘Lopes are especially accomplished on offense, averaging 15 goals an outing last year en route to a 16-1 mark and a 9-8 national championship victory over long-time Division I MCLA powerhouse, Colorado.

The key? “We score from anywhere, off the draw [faceoff], in transition, from a half-field set,” said Rapkin. That may sound simplistic, but picture a basketball team that can score from the low-post, running the court, and from beyond the three-point arc and you’ll get an idea of the difficulty of scoring consistently in multiple facets of lacrosse.

Defensively, GCU made a critical addition to an already experienced coaching staff when they added former Princeton assistant Jeff Guy in 2015. The team yielded double-digit goals just five times in their run to the national title.

“We pride ourselves on executing fundamentally sound team defense,” said Guy. “It starts with being able to defend the dodger with proper technique, while continually supporting the on-ball defender with our off-ball defenders.  Clear, concise communication is key,” he added. To draw again a basketball analogy, GCU’s defense has the athletic ability to play man-to-man, as well as the required technique to play zone.

GCU will boast Dean Fairall of St. Albert, Alberta on attack this year. Fairall was tabbed by Lacrosse Magazine as the MCLA’s preseason Player of the Year. Just as Denver head coach Bill Tierney and associate head coach Matt Brown utilized top Canadian talent to capture the NCAA 2015 national championship, the ‘Lopes have the ability to draw from north of the border to Arizona.

"Growing up playing box lacrosse helped my inside game and conditioning as a midfielder,” said fellow Canadian Lucas de Jong of Victoria, British Columbia. “With the deep talent pool here it forces you to work hard every single day on the field, in the weight room, and in the classroom in order to keep your spot,” he added.

In addition to nine All-Americans on the field in 2015, GCU produced four academic All-Americans last year.

The ‘Lopes and Rapkin can also recruit from far afield within the U.S., “We got our first recruit from Maryland this year, from Towson. It’ll be good to see the name ‘Towson’ on our roster,” said Rapkin, paying an implied compliment to the CAA’s outstanding Towson University program and the state’s high regard in the sport. Long-stick middie Aidan Ryan of Maryland will join GCU this fall.

Rapkin has coached at virtually every level and across the nation, including at Division II Dominican College in New York. For a period he also led a powerful club team in Northern New Jersey, near the epicenter of the state’s lacrosse prowess, that drew from the Delbarton, Summit and Chatham high school programs, among others. All three regularly turn out top Division I players. The 2016 GCU squad includes Tim Mahaney, a senior defenseman from the Garden State.

In most sports, the ‘Lopes compete in the NCAA’s Western Athletic Conference (WAC), but GCU chose the MCLA as its best lacrosse option after a stint in the NCAA’s Division II for the sport. It’s proven a wise choice. Part of one of many impressive aspects of the GCU program is how quickly they attained their national championship. They joined the MCLA in 2011 and the move proved a boon to the university, and its lacrosse program.

“We bring a lot of kids onto campus, and the university really supports us,” said Rapkin.

Above: Junior midfielder Austin Eckeroth will help the 'Lopes defend their 2015 title. (Courtesy GCU men's lacrosse)

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