A roller-coaster ride so far for No. 10 GCU men’s soccer

The GCU men’s soccer team was the pre-season pick to share the Pacific West Conference crown this year.  And with good reason.

Head Coach Petar Draksin took his Grand Canyon University program to a 13-4-1 finish last year and was named the PacWest Coach of the Year for his efforts.  The 2012 team has 18 players back from that squad and had a solid recruiting class to boot.

But they’re having some trouble getting their footing so far this season.

The Antelopes are 2-1 in conference play and a top-10 nationally-ranked team, but inconsistent play has kept them from hitting their stride.

Draksin put together a tough non-conference schedule to prepare his team for conference play, and to build some credibility in the polls.  And it’s paying off.

They beat a couple of good teams in Colorado-Pueblo and Sonoma State to open the schedule, which validated their No. 19 national ranking.  And then a 3-2 win over Fort Lewis, which has won two national championships in the last three years, helped propel them to No. 8.

A 2-1 loss to No. 5 Seattle Pacific in the next game, which was their first road trip, dropped them back down to No. 10.  The Falcons out-shot GCU 15-10 overall, but it was a 12-4 imbalance in the second half that kept the Antelopes on defense and allowed Seattle Pacific to hand the visitors their first loss of the season.

“We took a lead and then tried to play soccer and pass the ball around,” Draksin explained after the game.  “It was a very physical game.  My guys were in for a surprise.  We just were not good enough tonight.

“As a team, we were in a little bit of a culture shock because we got comfortable in our own backyard.  “We need to get better on the road.”

That was a critical point to make since the Seattle Pacific game was just the first of five road games, as GCU won’t return to its west Phoenix campus until Sept. 29.

They did recover after the Seattle Pacific loss, beating Fresno Pacific, 4-0, in their first conference match.  And the ‘Lopes did it convincingly, out-shooting the Sunbirds, 18-8, and getting goals from four different players:  Saeed Robinson, Oshane Brown, Alberto Sanchez Garcia, and Brandon Hansen.

“After the tough loss to Seattle Pacific, the boys responded with a lot of character,” Draksin pointed out after the conference win.  “This was a very crucial win because it is always important to win the first conference game.”

Unfortunately, the second conference game didn’t go as well.  They fell flat against Notre Dame de Namur, a long-time rival, as the Argonauts out-shot the visitors from Phoenix, 17-9, and went on to post a 3-1 win.

“We were still celebrating the win against Fresno Pacific,” a frustrated Draksin explained afterward.  “We had no emotion or energy.  As a team, we were not very good today.’

But last night, the ‘Lopes bounced back up again to beat Holy Names, 2-1, thanks to the deadly shooting of Zoran Nincevic – who scored both goals after logging just one goal prior to that game.  The junior midfielder is a transfer from Illinois Central College, where he led that team in scoring as a sophomore, piling up 13 goals and seven assists last season.

His work last night gave a little breathing room for the team’s senior forward, Saeed Robinson, who has been a marked man this season.  Robinson was the 2011 PacWest Newcomer of the Year after transferring in from Western Texas College.  He leads the team this season with four goals and three assists.

Nincevic scored at the 17:38 mark with an unassisted goal, and then came back to put up the late insurance score at 72:08.  The Holy Names point came on a penalty kick in the 85th minute.

Holy Names is one of four schools that have been added this season to the PacWest Conference.  The others are Fresno Pacific, Point Loma, and Azusa Pacific.

“This conference has gotten so much better with the addition of Cal Baptist last year and the four schools this year,” says Draksin, who is in his 20th year in charge of the GCU program.  “All of these schools have strengthened men’s soccer in this conference.”

And that just helps validate Draksin’s point about playing tough teams.  “We don’t have an automatic qualifier, so strength of schedule is important.  Each of these teams is taking our conference to another level.”

Which helps explain how difficult it is going to be to win 13 games again this year and fulfill the pre-season expectations of a shared conference title with California Baptist.

(Photo: GCU Athletics)