GCU coaches met D-I challenge head on
Second of a five-part series
Story by Rick Vacek
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU News Bureau
The Grand Canyon University softball team had just swept a doubleheader from New Mexico State University in April to take over first place in the Western Athletic Conference, and Coach Ann Pierson noticed a commotion in front of her as the two teams lined up to shake hands.
“What’s going on up there?” she wondered.
She soon found out and couldn’t help but shake her head at the unbridled joy of her frisky colts.
Line dancing. The Antelopes were line dancing. One of their favorite songs, “Cupid Shuffle,” had come on the loudspeakers and they were a team that liked to dance, so …
“We were like, ‘Hey, why not? Let’s just go for it,’” said outfielder Haley Walker, who just completed her junior year. “We were always dancing. When we were stretching, we were dancing. When we were about to go on the field, we were dancing. It wasn’t as if we never danced. They (the New Mexico State players) shouldn’t have been surprised.”
Pierson said, “New Mexico State couldn’t have been too happy about it. And they are good. But we still beat them the next day.”
And they line danced after that game, too.
The Lopes never looked back and went on to secure the WAC regular-season championship in their first year in the league. Not bad for a team that didn’t get any love in the preseason predictions.
“We were picked to finish last in the WAC, which we used as fuel,” Pierson said. “We were really insulted by that.”
Coaches in all of GCU’s 22 sports expected that sort of treatment in their first year in NCAA Division I, and they did remarkably well in helping their teams adjust to bigger, faster, better competition.
To get an idea of what it was like, GCU Today talked to three of the longest-tenured head coaches – Pierson, Trent May of women’s basketball and Petar Draksin of men’s soccer. One who coaches a spring sport, one in a winter sport, one in the fall. One who won the conference and was named WAC Coach of the Year, one who finished a solid third and one who went through an incredibly frustrating season after years of Division II domination.
But all have one thing in common: To get their athletes ready and then keep them going through the season, they had to build expectations and then, when the results weren’t what they wanted, be so relentlessly positive that they made Stephen Covey look like Chicken Little.
“It was a learning experience every day,” Pierson said.
Let’s learn from how they went about it, in chronological order.
Draksin is a passionate man, and even now, six months removed from a season in which his team lost eight games by one goal and went 4-14-1, his heart still aches for a group that had gone 43-10-5 the previous three years in D-II.
“There was a lot of bad luck. In all my (28) years here, I’ve never seen a year like last year,” he said.
It didn’t help that the Antelopes’ “Welcome to D-I” gift was eight road games in four time zones to start the season, including one stretch where they were in three different hotels and three different airports in five days. In all, they played only five home games.
When the decision was made to go D-I, Draksin knew he had a veteran roster made up of players who competed well in D-II but might have trouble with the pace of play one rung up the ladder. Nevertheless, he decided that those players deserved their shot at D-I, and the last thing he was going to do was take away scholarships and bring in fresh blood.
“There’s a humanity in this,” he said. “You’ve got to put aside some things and do it the right way. I’m disappointed in the year we had, but I’m proud of them competition-wise and academics-wise. They took care of business.”
Now he’s looking forward to a dramatically new team this year with 13 new recruits in his first D-I recruiting class. His goal is to make GCU the destination for the best players in Arizona.
“Our goal is the top 25 in the nation,” he said. “And once we get there, we’re going to stay there.”
Covey’s “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” sounds like a blueprint for the way that May coaches. Asked what he and his coaching staff did when they learned of the move to D-I, May emphasized daily habits.
“Yes, some things are different, but you’ve just got to get up every day and do what you’re supposed to do,” he said. “It’s about habit and familiarity.
“We’re fortunate in that we had a bunch of mature, seasoned and hungry players. For them, it wasn’t a big transition. It was the same coaching staff, there were no new rules and they had familiarity with their teammates.”
The Antelopes stormed out of the gate, winning their first five games by an average of 22 points, before losing in a Florida tournament to Mississippi State University, 71-62, and to UCLA, 62-60, after leading by 12 in the second half.
“When we lost, we were not excited. It wasn’t like, ‘They’ve been D-I for 20, 40, 80 years, so it’s OK.’ It was not OK with us,” he said.
May was pleased that his team used the motivation of those two losses to win its next six games, including a 20-point victory at the University of Nevada. After that game, May said, he and his coaches sat in the arena for an hour, taking it all in.
The WAC season, which began with a two-point loss at the University of Texas-Pan American and a three-pointer at New Mexico State University, didn’t go as well, but the Lopes still qualified for the postseason Women’s Basketball Invitational, where they lost to Boise State University in the first round.
Like Draksin, May will have a mostly new team next season, but he’s not dismayed.
“The way we’ve looked at this, it’s not an opportunity for failure, it’s an opportunity for success,” he said.
Covey’s second habit is “Begin with the end in mind,” and don’t be surprised if this ends well for May’s team again next season. As his track record has shown, it’s just what his teams do.
One of the key elements of Pierson’s D-I indoctrination of her team was having coaches from fall and winter sports – including May – talk with them about their experiences with it. She wanted the players to understand that this wasn’t going to be easy, and she didn’t mince words when it was her turn to speak.
“I think what my kids rely on from me is to be very blunt and honest with them,” she said. “I’m not a cheerleader. If I were to assume that role, they’d look at me like I had three heads. They had to understand that they almost had to play perfect.”
Pierson liked what she heard back from her players when the Lopes lost their season opener to East Carolina University – in the way they reacted to it.
“I asked them after the game what they thought and they said, ‘We belong here. We can do this,’” she said.
Their first D-I victory, over Utah State University, followed, and after losing six of their next nine games the Lopes won their first four games in the GCU Invitational and were off and running. It was a tough early schedule, but that was by design. “We just wanted to rip the Band-Aid off,” Pierson said. “It was so hard, but that’s what made it so much fun.”
But what would have been her reaction if you had told her a year ago that her team would win the WAC in its first try?
“I’d have thought you were nuts,” she said.
As the Line Dancing Lopes showed, anything is possible in your first year in D-I – including having a little fun along the way.
ALSO IN GCU TODAY: The famous, and surprising, assistant football coach at University of the Incarnate Word.
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Contact Rick Vacek at 602.639.8203 or firstname.lastname@example.org.