26 Th11 2021 | 06:35
The Grand Canyon men’s soccer team entered the weekend as the 17th-ranked team in the country, but its goals lie beyond the national rankings the team has reached in recent seasons.
To hit another level, GCU head coach Leonard Griffin wanted his team to become dangerous around the goal.
Danger ahead, indeed. The Lopes adhered with 11 goals in two home wins, including junior forward Cameron Weller’s Sunday night hat trick to lead a 5-1 win against UT Rio Grande Valley.
With an eight-game winning streak, GCU (10-1, 5-0 WAC) now boasts one of the top five winning percentages in the nation this season and debuted at No. 8 nationally in the NCAA’s Ratings Percentage Index. The Lopes are 18-3 over the past two seasons with two losses coming to No. 2 Washington.
GCU pummeled UTRGV (5-5, 2-2 WAC) with 27 shots on Sunday night. The defense made a 2-1 halftime lead stand, as the offense exploded for its first consecutive games of at least five goals since 2010. The Lopes’ 2.55 goals per game ranks 11th nationally.
“Up to this weekend, I thought we could’ve rewarded ourselves more in the attacking half and in front of goal,” Griffin said. “It is something we had in our minds to develop and be more goal-dangerous. It’s good to see it come out this weekend. To see the amount of different players (seven) who scored on the weekend is fantastic.”
Weller outscored his collegiate career on Sunday night with three unassisted goals. The Spokane, Washington, product scored in his 2019 GCU debut, but only played two more games that season and logged just 51 minutes last season.
After scoring his second career goal in Friday’s win, Weller added the hat trick Sunday for a four-goal, two-assist weekend after previously having a one-goal, one-assist career.
“The coaches have been phenomenal with me,” Weller said. “I was not that confident with my play over the summer. They’ve helped me so much in the way I’ve been playing. They’ve built my confidence up and eased me into a starting spot. Each coach specifically has helped me with one thing.”
Weller opened Sunday’s scoring in the fifth minute, when Lopes senior midfielder Alexis Canales intercepted a backfield pass and lost possession before Weller recovered it, spun full circle and put a 20-yard strike over the goalkeeper.
Within five minutes, last season’s WAC runner-up tied the match at 1-1.
For Weller’s second goal in the 23rd minute, GCU freshman midfielder Kaden Cameron helped create the opportunity with a cross that the Vaqueros goalkeeper swatted away. Weller knocked the rebound with his left foot into the net’s upper-right corner for a 2-1 lead.
“I was proud of our guys’ effort pressing in the attacking half,” Griffin said. “We were able to win some balls in a good part of the field, which allowed us to get to the goal quicker.”
GCU junior forward Shaun-Chris Joash nearly stretched the lead to 3-0 early in the second half when his shot beat the goalkeeper but was saved by a defender. Weller missed wide on a rebound shot, which turned out to be practice shot for the penalty kick that came seconds later.
Weller completed his hat trick and gave the Lopes a 3-1 lead by beating the goalkeeper on his right side. With the return of his confidence and scoring prowess, Weller also brought back the cartwheel and backflip that followed his debut goal, which tied that game in the final minute.
The score remained tight at 3-1 for most of the second half. GCU senior goalkeeper Anthony Munoz kept it that way with two diving saves and a tap-over save in a three-minute span. Munoz has helped keep the back half of the eight-game winning streak going after replacing freshman goalkeeper Rafael Guerrero, who remains hospitalized as he recovers from a serious head injury that he suffered in a Sept. 25 game.
“Without Anthony, we would’ve probably had a different result,” Griffin said. “He kept us in the game and allowed us to gain more confidence in the attack.”
The Lopes put away the win in the 83rd minute with senior defender Alejandro Fernandez Alcaide sending a long ball up the right side for fifth-year forward Rey Gaytan, who scored 2 1/2 minutes after entering the game. Gaytan, a Phoenix native, has made three appearances this season but scored in each of the past two games.
Fernandez Alcaide sent a similar booming pass moments later to sophomore forward Maximilian Moeller, who scored his first goal of the season after his fake dropped a defender on the ground. Until Weller’s work, Moeller had the Lopes’ last hat trick in March.
The 5-1 final put GCU within two goals of the program’s Division I-era record for a season, even with at least seven games remaining.
“We pursue together, we defend together and we attack together,” Fernandez Alcaide said. “We are a very united group, on and off the field. You can tell that we all work for each other. There’s really good chemistry and that’s the key to success.
“Playing on our field, we are a really strong team and it’s very difficult to cause us problems. When we are calm with the ball and do our job, we do fantastic and it’s difficult to break us down.”
If not for the goal allowed, Griffin said Sunday’s performance might have made for close to a perfect weekend. His postgame message implored the team to push forward to get where it wants to be. Last season’s WAC regular-season champions and NCAA tournament team wants more this season, as it heads for another bump this week in the national poll from No. 17.
“It’s a super-special team this year and I don’t think people realize it,” Weller said. “I see these guys in the locker room before any team we play and we’re not scared of anybody. I think we’re getting better and better every game. This team feels a lot stronger as a team outside of soccer, as well as in soccer.”
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