Encore! GCU Athletics Ready to Defend Learfield Cup
By Bob Romantic
GCU News Bureau
When the GCU women’s soccer team steps onto the field Thursday in St. George, Utah, for a game against Sonoma State University, they’ll not only be kicking off a new year in athletics, they’ll be doing so on the heels of the most successful year in the school’s 63-year history.
No pressure, right?
“It’s important to have that sort of pressure behind you,” women’s soccer coach Stevie Gill said about following up last year’s success in which GCU won the Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup as the best all-around NCAA Division II athletic program in the country. “You can either rise to the expectations or fall by the wayside.”
Women’s soccer is first out of the gate as GCU looks to defend its Learfield title, which had been won by Grand Valley State University (Mich.) the previous eight years. Next up will be home games on Friday for women’s volleyball (2 p.m. vs. the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and 7 p.m. vs. the University of California at San Diego) and men’s soccer (8:30 p.m. vs. Colorado State University at Pueblo).
The other fall sports – men’s and women’s cross country – begin Saturday at the George Kyte Invitational in Flagstaff.
Men’s soccer coach Petar Draksin said there is always pressure to win, regardless of last year’s across-the-board success.
“As a coach, you apply pressure on yourself year in and year out to bring in the best athletes and have the most success you can. So is there more pressure? No, we always want to reach the highest, which is to win a national championship.
“What’s nice is that we have multiple sports here that are now successful. We have been on the map as individual sports … baseball, basketball, men’s soccer and tennis in some years. Now we have more than 15 sports that are very successful. We’re on the map as an athletic program.”
|FALL SPORTS OUTLOOKS|
|Last year: 22-7 overall, 12-4 PacWest. Finished with 14 wins in a row to close the regular season and reached the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1995.|
|Returners: All but two players are back, including All-PacWest players Kristen Preach (setter) and Mackenzie Phelps (libero).|
|Coaches Corner: Kris Naber believes she has the strongest offensive team she’s ever had. “Every piece of the puzzle skill-wise is there. We’ve just got to put it together.”|
|Last year: 13-4-1 overall, 9-2-1 PacWest. Did not qualify for NCAA tournament.|
|Returners: 18 players, including forward Saeed Robinson, the PacWest Newcomer of the Year last season and an all-conference selection. Alex Connally was second-team All-PacWest.|
|Coaches Corner: Petar Draksin lost 5-6 key starters from last year’s team but likes his recruiting class. “We definitely have the personnel. The key is to stay healthy. The big thing right now is we have great chemistry.”|
|Last year: 9-6-3 overall, 8-2-2 PacWest. Reached NCAA playoffs for first time in program’s 16-year history.|
|Returners: 16 players, including All-PacWest first-teamers Jessica Scarpati and Cierra Valdez. Angelina Miraglio, Gabriella Zavala de Rojas and Cheyenne Biehl also were All-PacWest honorees.|
|Coaches Corner: Stevie Gill said for the first time he has more attacking players than defensive players. “We can finish our chances now. We haven’t had that. With our speed on the wings and athleticism up front, I don’t know how many teams will enjoy playing us.”|
|Men’s cross country|
|Last year: Finished fourth at PacWest Championships and 14th at NCAA West Regional.|
|Returners: Eight runners, including Sharles Simon, who was All-PacWest after finishng sixth in conference and 32nd in West.|
|Coaches Corner: Dr. Kim Sims is pleased to have six runners running sub-30-minute times (for eight kilometers) at this point. “Our goal is to get those next five to close the gap as close as they can to Sharles, and then we have a chance to finish in the top 10 in the West Region.”|
|Women’s cross country|
|Last year: Finished third at PacWest Championships and 19th at NCAA West Regional.|
|Returners: Nine runners, including Megan Young-Rivera, who was 13th in PacWest.|
|Coaches Corner: Sims says her team is better and stronger than last year’s. Two freshmen, Kelsi Klotter and Keely Craig, are breaking into the top five, as is walk-on Neftali Daza.|
Women’s volleyball coach Kris Naber agreed, saying it’s not so much additional pressure as it is excitement about following in last year’s footsteps.
“There’s an expectation now,” said Naber, whose team made the NCAA tournament last year for the first time since 1995. “There’s an excitement about getting the season going. There’s an excitement about getting to the point where all 22 teams will be successful.”
The framework is in place – coaches, facilities, support from administration, etc. – to ensure that last year was not a fluke. But it won’t be as simple as rolling out the ball and expecting continued success.
In order to get to the NCAA Division II postseason, the Antelopes must first get out of their own conference. And that keeps getting tougher.
The Pacific West Conference has added four new members and is now at 14 teams. The newcomers are:
— Azusa Pacific University, which has won the NAIA Directors’ Cup for eight successive years. The Athletics have 37 NAIA championships under their belt.
— Fresno Pacific University, which has been in the top six in the NAIA Learfield standings for six years in a row. Its women’s volleyball team won four NAIA national titles from 2007-2010, and its men’s/women’s swimming teams and men’s/women’s tennis teams also have won national championships in the past five years.
— Point Loma Nazarene University, which has been around since 1902. The Sea Lions were 23rd in the NAIA Learfield Cup standings last season but have a pair of runner-up finishes in the past five years.
— Holy Names University, in Oakland, Calif. The Hawks are another former NAIA school. They have had athletics only since 1994.
“I welcome these new teams because when you have a strong conference, it makes you better as a team, as a coach and as a player,” Draksin said. “We have 14 programs in our conference, and I think seven or eight are (soccer) powerhouses.”
In the short term, the new PacWest schools will be ineligible for postseason play while they complete the minimum two-year transition from the NAIA to the NCAA. California Baptist University is also in that boat for one more year after moving up to Division II in 2011. Last year, Cal Baptist was the all-sports champ in the PacWest – better than even the Learfield champ Antelopes – but was ineligible for the postseason.
That means in sports such as men’s basketball, only nine of the 14 PacWest teams are eligible for the conference tournament this year, and six of those nine will qualify.
Keith Baker, GCU’s director of athletics, said it’s not a given that the Antelopes can just show up and reclaim the Learfield title, let alone their place within the PacWest.
“The success of one year is soon eclipsed by the challenge of the next,” Baker said. “There’s a certain sense of validation and a feeling that we’re a big part of the intercollegiate world (after winning Learfield) … and our coaches have a good sense of ownership of that trophy. But in athletics, success is fairly fleeting. We really have to go back to basics and start over and get after it.”