March 8, 2012

Raising Arizona: Grand Canyon Reemerges in MCLA

by Jac Coyne | | Coyne Archive | Twitter

Andrew Hunter (above) was seventh in NCAA Division II in save percentage last spring, and now he's the backbone of the Grand Canyon defense playing in MCLA Division II. With Hunter, along with his twin brother Richard, leading the way, the 'Lopes are 4-0 and already ranked No. 10 in the country.
© Grand Canyon Athletics

It was overshadowed in the glow of several MCLA teams, most notably Michigan, jumping to the NCAA realm, but the connection between the club and varsity world wasn't just a one-way street last year.

Out in Phoenix, Grand Canyon quietly slipped from the ranks of NCAA Division II into the MCLA's second division. While geographically isolated and without a nearby rival, the decision to cease operations at the NCAA level was the result of the 'Lopes intended institutional move to Division I.

"They could not sponsor 25 sports at the D-I level. They didn't have the bulk," said Manny Rapkin, Grand Canyon's first-year head coach. "The reason that lacrosse dropped was there was a viable, quality league for men's lacrosse to play where other sports didn't have that option. It wasn't focused on moving lacrosse out; it was trying to find a way to keep our sports at a competitive level and be able to do it within a certain budget."

In addition to its NCAA sponsorship, Grand Canyon lost its coach. Jeff Guy opted to take a volunteer position at Princeton, leaving the program with seven players – the rest of the roster scattered off to various varsity teams – and a new coach.

The 'Lopes migrated to MCLA Division II, which is consistent with the loose structure upheld by the league. Those schools that are in the Football Bowl Subdivision (neé I-A) must play at MCLA Division I (to be eligible for the postseason) while other schools may choose either division. While it's a sore spot for those who choose to operate in the junior circuit, Grand Canyon opted for D-II because they felt they could evolve easier.

"We basically had seven guys committed to come back and we really didn't know what our situation was going to be for the roster or recruits," said Rapkin. "At that time, Jeff made the determination of going with the path of least resistance. We'll see how it works out and we can always move up from there."

What Rapkin and the 'Lopes hadn't counted on was the school attracting a class of 20 freshmen and one transfer, giving them the kind of numbers they never had during the NCAA D-II days.

"It has been a huge issue," said senior close defender Richard Hunter of the 'Lopes' previous lack of depth. "We had to bring down middies to play at pole for the last couple of years to fill positions, which made it difficult."

"It's been pretty smooth," added Andrew Hunter, Grand Canyon's senior goal and twin brother of Richard. "There has been no real change in practice moving from NCAA to MCLA. We're taking it as serious as we did last year; we're just looking forward to playing."

It has shown so far.

The 'Lopes have played four games, all against ranked opponents at the time, and have rocketed to No. 10 in the MCLA-II poll after entering the season unranked. Two of the wins came against ranked teams in MCLA Division I – most recently Thursday's 10-8 victory over Northeastern, which was slotted at No. 20 this week. On Saturday, Grand Cannyon will face it's highest ranked team, Concordia (Calif.), on the road in hopes of moving even higher.

The success can be attributed to several factors. First, the talented rookie class that Rapkin jokingly refers to his "32-year-old freshmen" because of their maturity, has been instrumental.

"We've had to break them into what we normally do, but they're a lot better crew than we've been getting in the last couple of years at NCAA," said Andrew Hunter. "It's been easier to talk to them and get them on the same level as what we're trying to do here."

A big part can also be attributed to the seven holdovers from the varsity era, and the five seniors in particular. Andrew Hunter was ranked seventh in NCAA Division II in save percentage (62.2) last year and led all goalies in saves per game (16.25). Hunter's brother, Richard, is the anchor of the defense, while Kyle Bailey is a veteran player in the midfield. Fred Whistle is a dominant faceoff man and Rapkin calls attackman Jake Hippensteel his best offensive player.

Perhaps the key ingredient is Rapkin's tactics. After the 'Lopes beat both Western Washington and Western Oregon in Las Vegas earlier this spring, one MCLA D-II coach from a Top 10 program commented that Grand Canyon was very physical and didn't give away any offensive possessions.

It's a philosophy that was molded during Rapkin's days in the East Coast Conference – the premier NCAA Division II conference – when he was the head coach at Dominican (N.Y.) College. Rapkin coached the Chargers during the fifth and sixth years of their existence (he still holds the school record for wins with six in '10), and it was a struggle. "We were playing in a conference with basically seven Top 10 teams every year," he said.

Now he's carrying over the same principles he used in the ECC to the MCLA.

"We like to push the ball, but when we get it down on offense, we settle it out and control the ball," Rapkin said. "We're not looking to waste time; our offense is all about getting to the cage. We're not shooting with guys on our hands, we're making smart passes and we're sharing the ball. We're trying to get a quality look. We focus on that."

While Rapkin's methodical offense may draw attention at the MCLA-II level, he feels like the 'Lopes' identity lies on the defensive end, with the Hunter twins, who both check in at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds.

"The way I see it now, we have a stronger core group on defense than we've ever had in my three previous years at Grand Canyon," said Richard Hunter. "It's a lot easier to play around guys who know the game and it's easier for them to learn the defense we're playing and play as a team.

"I believe we can beat any team we go against," added Andrew. "We have the right players with the proper coaching that will be taking us to the next level."

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