The step up to Division I play can be a difficult process, even for a successful men’s soccer program like the one at Grand Canyon University. After two years, it’s obvious the Antelopes haven’t been able to successfully take that step up from D-II.
And that shortcoming just cost their long-time coach his job.
It was probably not a complete surprise to Petar Draksin, who has devoted the last 28 years of his life to the GCU soccer program. The school had just hired a new athletic director who was expected to begin making changes, and Draksin is coming off two of the worst seasons in recent memory. It was only natural to expect that the new AD would be making major moves in accordance with his stated mission of preparing the small Christian college in west Phoenix for Division I competition.
But it was still something of a surprise that Draksin would be the first casualty.
Draksin took the ‘Lopes to five Pacific West Conference titles in the program’s last seven years competing at the D-II level. His last year in the PacWest was 2012; that team went 15-3-2 overall with just one conference loss and again brought home the conference title. It finished the season ranked No. 10 in the nation and put an exclamation point on its final year of D-II ball by advancing to the NCAA Division II Sweet 16.
The ‘Lopes also pulled a huge upset over the No. 1 team in the country that season, beating defending D-II national champion Fort Lewis.
Now the school is in its second year of a four-year transition to becoming a fully-accredited D-I program. And neither year has been kind to Draksin and his band of Antelopes.
They finished their first year of the transition with a disappointing 4-14-1 season and lost seven of their last nine games to close on a sour note. This year saw just miniscule improvement in the record as the team went 5-12-3.
They suffered through a five-game losing streak at mid-season and had another weak finish, winning just one of their last six games. And they traversed the entire schedule without posting back-to-back wins even once.
Draksin was working with a young squad this year – only a few starters were seniors – that included 13 freshmen. In addition, he tried to blend in the talents of nine new transfers to build a roster that bore little resemblance to last year’s squad.
But with those considerations aside, Mike Vaught, who was hired as the new AD just two months ago, decided to begin making the changes everyone had anticipated with his hire. He pulled the trigger and informed Draksin that his 22 years as head coach had come to an end. Prior to taking over the program, Draksin put in another six years as an assistant coach with the program and also took on double duty when he coached the school’s women’s team from 2002-2006.
Draksin reportedly says he supports the college’s decision to look for a new head coach. But that can’t be easy for the man who has brought national attention to GCU, winning national and conference championships. The five-time PacWest Coach of the Year took the program to the pinnacle of success as a Division II competitor, losing just 11 games over its last four years in the conference.
But the challenges he faced in the Western Athletic Conference proved to be too much. In mid-October, his ‘Lopes won their home conference opener against University of Missouri-Kansas City, but the celebration in front of their fans at home faded into a second-to-last place finish. The 3-2 victory over Kansas City turned out to be the only time they would win a conference game on their own field.
Draksin says he was told by Vaught that the new AD wants to take the program “in a different direction,” the reason most often used when replacing a head coach that isn’t winning.
We’ll just have to wait and see if that new direction leads to at least some of the success the program has enjoyed through the years under Draksin.
And the success/failure of this move will also begin to define Vaught’s legacy at the school.
(Photo: GCU Athletics)