After tough road stretch, men’s soccer to play historic home opener
By Cooper Nelson
GCU News Bureau
The Grand Canyon University men’s soccer team has a history of winning, so players faced some unfamiliar turbulence in opening their first year of NCAA Division I play.
The “fútbol” squad boasts five Division II PacWest Conference championships, seven NCAA national tournament appearances since 1993 and eight consecutive winning seasons since 2004. Those included last year’s 16-3-1 season that ended with a loss to Simon Fraser University in the NCAA D-II Sweet 16.
Although the team retained its core of players from last year, the inaugural D-I season began with tough slate of road contests across five different states, leading to a 1-5-1 record against more physical and experienced opponents like Stanford. The Antelopes, accustomed to playing a majority of their early season games at home, took four of their five losses this season by a single goal during the rough stretch that included a 12-day, four-game trip from Nebraska to Chicago to Florida.
The Antelopes will play 15 road games and only five home games this season, including a historic home opener at 8:15 p.m. Friday at GCU Soccer Field against Western Athletic Conference opponent Houston Baptist. The game is the first D-I men’s soccer game played in Arizona, officials said, since GCU is the first-ever men’s D-I program in the state. The Antelopes also face WAC foe Missouri-Kansas City at home at 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
Head Coach Petar Draksin, the team’s head coach since 1993, said a home game backed by the GCU crowd would help turn the season around.
“It’s been a long road for us … it’s a difficult thing to take because when you know you’re close enough and just a mistake here and there and you get punished for it, it hurts,” Draksin said.
“We’re working on (facing WAC opponents) now and going to win the conference regular season, that’s our hope,” he said.
The 2013 season is the first WAC men’s soccer season since the conference discontinued soccer in 1999. Current WAC programs include GCU, UMKC, Houston Baptist, Texas-Pan American, Air Force, Cal State Bakersfield, San Jose State, Seattle and Nevada-Las Vegas.
Getting the WAC season under way also has proved difficult, although it’s no fault of the Antelopes. GCU’s scheduled WAC debut at Air Force last Saturday was postponed because of the federal government shutdown, the result of a stalemate in Congress over implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
The GCU squad showed glimpses of its former self early in the season, losing a closely contested match to Pac-12 foe Stanford, 1-0, in Palo Alto, Calif., and defeating Nebraska-Omaha, 2-1, in the season opener. The Antelopes tied Stetson, 2-2, in double overtime in DeLand, Fla.
Senior forward Kyle Ciliento climbed back into action after three knee injuries threatened to derail his promising college career. He currently leads the team with four goals early in the season and is one goal shy of tying the school scoring record of 55, set by Manoel Coelho in 1999.
Ciliento, 23, a Pinnacle High School alum, played his first year of college soccer at D-I Saint Mary’s College in California before transferring to D-II GCU after his first ACL tear. He has come full circle with a return to D-I this year. Ciliento was named WAC Offensive Player of the Week for the first week of the season and is currently third in goals and goals per game in the conference.
Senior midfielder Gerrit Thomes, 26, a native of Germany, is second on the team with two goals. Thomes arrived at GCU in August, his first time in the United States, to pursue his MBA and play D-I soccer.
Joshua Zehring, GCU’s junior goalkeeper, has earned WAC Defensive Player of the Week twice this season. Zehring has recorded 22 saves and ranks second in goals-against average (1.59) in the conference.
Zehring said the more physical and conditioned style of play in D-I made the transition difficult in year one, but he believes the resilience shown by the team is evidence of its ability to compete at the top NCAA level.
“A lot of the teams are a lot more fit and faster,” Zehring said. “As a whole, I think we’ve competed perfectly fine with them and I think we’re adjusting well.
“From here on out, no more losing. There is excitement about playing in front of our home crowd, and we’re just trying to win every conference game we can.”
Contact Cooper Nelson at 639.7511 or firstname.lastname@example.org.