|Grand Canyon's Joe Balestrieri (Photo / GCU )|
This story was written as a preview of the promising season ahead for the Grand Canyon University Lopes in 2017 and first appeared on January 25, 2017.
On May 13, the Lopes captured their second national championship in three years when they defeated Chapman University, 12-8.
In the Northeast, the February start to the men’s college lacrosse season is as much a battle against the elements as it is against respective opponents. Once novel, snow-filled games are now so frequent as to draw into annual debate the decision to start the season in the midst of winter.
Not so in Phoenix, where the Grand Canyon University Lopes prepare for their 2017 start beneath typically clear skies.
GCU, under head coach Manny Rapkin, captured the Division I Men’s Collegiate Lacrosse Association (MCLA) national championship in 2015, going 16-1 and averaging 15 goals per game in the process. Last year, the Lopes bowed out in the national semifinals to Cal Poly.
The combination of lacrosse-friendly weather and GCU’s success is helping draw talent to the Arizona desert as part of the sport’s larger spread away from its traditional power hubs in the East. The same year the Lopes won the MCLA DI title, the Denver Pioneers defeated Maryland to become the first team west of the Mississippi to capture an NCAA lacrosse crown at any level.
Jeff Guy, a Connecticut transplant, is GCU's assistant coach and defensive coordinator. The former midfielder first arrived at GCU in 2007 as an assistant after graduating from the University of Delaware in 2005. By 2012, he was on the staff at Princeton, where the Tigers went undefeated in Ivy League play and made the NCAA tournament.
Even though he was coaching future MLL standouts like Tom Schreiber and Tyler Fiorito, the Southwest hadn’t completely left his mind.
“I still missed living in Arizona, that was one of the main things,” said Guy of his decision to depart the University of Dallas – where he was the head coach for two years following Princeton – for GCU in the summer of 2014. In the Lopes' championship season of 2015, with Guy directing the defense, GCU allowed double-digit goals just five times in their 17 games.
“It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, coming back.”
Rapkin is also an Eastern transplant, spending his undergraduate career playing football and lacrosse at New York’s NCAA Division I Siena College, and also serving as the head coach at New York’s Dominican College before arriving at GCU.
The two coaches, in addition to their work on the Lopes’ sideline, help sow lacrosse seeds in the desert at the youth level as part of Guy’s Accelerated Lacrosse Academy for middle school and high school players in the area.
Another critical part of the 2017 GCU squad arrived from far afield, in his case from the North. Senior Lucas de Jong is a Lopes midfielder hailing from Victoria, British Columbia.
Rapkin spotted de Jong when his club team, the Vancouver Island Seaspray, made trips south to tournaments in Seattle and San Diego. “He came and talked to our team and told us a little about GCU,” said de Jong. “My junior year I kind of shrugged it off because I wanted to keep looking. But the more recruiting letters, emails, and phone calls I received, nothing else was the full package for me."
“I had a lot of good people telling me I had to pick a school based on the school first, lacrosse second. After visiting GCU, there was no question.”
The sports management major is also an RA, the president of the college’s local chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), and served an internship for the Phoenix Suns in 2016 that resulted in a job offer. "It was an amazing experience, something I'll never forget and I learned a ton from," said de Jong of interning for the Suns.
On the lacrosse field, de Jong describes himself as, "A pretty stereotypical Canadian – I grew up playing box lacrosse; I started in the third grade.” He added that like his fellow countrymen, his stick skills are centered on his dominant hand, honed in the tight confines of the indoor game.
"We [Canadians] play field lacrosse the way we play box lacrosse. We dodge hard, we get the ball to the net, and we set lots of picks."
He was recruited as an attackman out of high school. “My first fall semester at attack at GCU, I was just awful," said de Jong, laughing. "Coach called me in one morning and said he was switching me to defensive middie. I had a panic attack, but then I worked hard and got the starting position for my first game against Colorado State." He scored a goal in the game and went on to earn All-Freshman accolades.
“You can really put Lucas anywhere on the field, and he’ll make the team better. You want to be better on face-offs and have your guy’s face-off percentage go up? Put Lucas on the wing," said Guy, referring to one of the two players who – as with hockey draws – man the flanks or "wings" on the center faceoff. “You want a better clearing percentage? Put Lucas in on the clear. He’s a total team player."
Senior attackman Joe Balestrieri began his college lacrosse career in Maryland, although he is a native of the San Diego area. His first stop was with perennial JUCO power CCBC-Essex, where he had 70 regular season points as a freshman, before moving to the state’s Stevenson University. While a Mustang, Balestrieri had 22 goals and four assists in 22 games as part of a 19-3 team.
“I think he’ll be the preseason MCLA Player of the Year,” said Rapkin in describing the senior’s talent. Balestrieri scored 56 goals and added 31 assists to lead the MCLA’s Top 10 Division I ranks in scoring in 2016. He also garnered first team All-American honors.
After deciding not to return to Stevenson, Balestrieri chose to look closer to home, somewhere where his family could watch him play. “I had a couple of buddies at GCU, and they told me it was a great environment, and a great team,” he said.
While he acknowledges GCU’s facilities, proximity, and weather as factors in his decision to come to Phoenix, he emphasizes that it was the coaching staff of Guy and Rapkin that sealed the decision.
“I’m thankful for the opportunity to be part of this team,” said Balestrieri.
His coaches echo the sentiment.
“When he originally came here, we had him slotted as a middie,” said Guy. “Coach Rapkin quickly came to the conclusion, ‘We need this guy on the field all the time.’”
"Joe's a great leader for our offense, another guy who also plays unselfish lacrosse and does a lot of great things for us,” he added. “He can shoot the ball outside, he can get to the goal on his own, and he can create goals. He can also be the finisher on the backside."
Thanks to the influx of talent from across North America, GCU hopes to finish the 2017 campaign as it did 2015, with an MCLA Division I trophy in hand.