29 Th11 2021 | 07:19
Esai Easley is the rare college young man who prioritizes clean sheets. He even has it written on a list of objectives that is taped to his campus apartment wall.
But Easley is also a rare college soccer player, the high level of defender who has helped Grand Canyon post several “clean sheets” – shutouts – as the program’s national rise has coincided with his career.
Easley’s development has culminated with another checked-off goal on that bedroom list, posted amid soccer jerseys and scarves. The senior won WAC Defensive Player of the Year for the 25th-ranked Lopes, who are the No. 1 seed and the host for the WAC Tournament that pits GCU and San Jose State in a 4:30 p.m. Friday semifinal.
If the Lopes win the tournament, they will head to the NCAA tournament for the third time in Easley’s four-year career. As the No. 17 team in NCAA Rating Percentage Index, GCU offers a strong case to be an at-large invitee regardless.
“There’s no better way to end my career than at GCU in a WAC Tournament environment,” Easley said. “It would top everything off if we won a WAC regular season and a WAC Tournament in the same year while at GCU and then have an opportunity to potentially host the NCAA tournament. It puts everything on top so that’s the goal.
“When I first came in, making a top-25 poll was a huge deal. Now, I can’t even think of weeks when we weren’t in the polls. It speaks volumes to how this program is moving forward.”
Easley chose the turf over the surf at age 10 in Hawaii in hopes of earning a college scholarship someday. His drive may earn him a pro career too after playing on the Portland Timbers’ Under-23 development team this summer.
He further grew his game by embracing a new GCU coaching staff’s system and thriving in head coach Leonard Griffin‘s three-back system, which allows him to turn into a midfielder at times. With Easley’s two-way play, the Lopes have lowered their goals allowed average (WAC-best 0.88) and increased their goals scored average (WAC-best 2.24) from last season’s NCAA tournament team.
“Esai always puts the team first, which is huge for me and the culture we’ve been trying to implement as a new staff,” Griffin said. “It’s been really cool to see him grow and develop as a senior leader and how well he’s adjusted to a new system and formation with positive questions and an eagerness to learn.
“Esai has the potential to do really well at the next level. If he gets into the right environment and shows well in preseason, I think he could turn some heads. The sky’s the limit.”
Surfing was Easley’s first and favorite sport as a boy in Hawaii, a generational home where his grandfathers also grew up. The necessary balance and footwork translated well to soccer and he went kicking to the defensive side for the last two years of high school in Kona.
It proved to be the best thing for his career, as Easley became a GCU starter by the fifth game of his freshman year. At age 18, he was an integral part of the Lopes’ breakthrough season with program firsts for cracking the top 25, winning the WAC Tournament and playing in an NCAA tournament game that it lost on penalty kicks.
“I came as a young kid wanting to learn and I am leaving as definitely more of a man,” said Easley, a finance and economics major. “It’s cool to see that I’ve given everything to this program and there’s been things that came out from that. I can move on with my head held high that I was one of the ones to elevate it to something special.”
One of the most secure areas on GCU’s campus is the goal that Easley helps protect. The defensive personnel around him changed this season, but Easley keeps the back line organized, dominated his ball challenges and helped two first-year starting goalkeepers to read the overall game.
In the match when freshman star goalkeeper Rafael Guerrero suffered a season-ending head injury, Easley had the presence of mind to go to the center of the goal when Guerrero collided with a Seattle U player. His instincts put him in position to block the final shot on goal of the match and preserve Guerrero’s shutout.
“Saving is the best thing I can do as a defender,” Easley said. “I remember the goals I scored, but I also remember the goals that almost got scored that I saved.”