IRVINE, Calif. --
For the past three weeks, the Grand Canyon men's soccer team has been playing for its soccer life.
The Lopes have become accustomed to tight games rife with emotion during a six-game winning streak but those experiences were far from the disheartening nail-biter that concluded their season Thursday night.
After losing a 1-0 lead and playing two scoreless overtimes, GCU ran out of extensions on its season. UC Irvine eliminated the Lopes on penalty kicks, 6-5, at Anteater Stadium.
Heads, mouths and bodies dropped in purple in scattered form across the field following the cruelest of finishes for the WAC Tournament champions. The drama of a potential golden goal in overtime turned to the tragedy of a team's fate being decided on penalty kicks, a dynamic made more arduous when GCU and UC Irvine needed two extra rounds of penalty kicks to decide who advanced to the NCAA tourney's second round.
On the final round of penalty kicks, the Anteaters (11-5-4) scored with a shot that glanced off GCU goalkeeper George Tasouris'
hands while Lopes sophomore Malik Smith's
ensuing shot was stopped.
"I can't think of a more difficult way of getting defeated," said Lopes head coach Schellas Hyndman
, who was denied his 500th
career win. "The takeaway for us is we talked a lot about the team's attitude, making history, winning the WAC and getting into the NCAA playoffs for the first time. All those things happened for us. A lot of the reason it happened for us is because I think our guys made a decision that they weren't going to be victims, but they were going to be fighters.
"Today was a day where, as a coach and anybody who saw the GCU team play, you got to be proud of our boys because they gave everything they possibly could."
GCU (12-8-1) won each WAC Tournament game 1-0 and appeared to have that postseason formula locked in when senior forward Jackson Jellah
scored in the third minute of Thursday's second half for a 1-0 Lopes lead.
Senior midfielder Alex Ramirez
broke up an Anteaters upfield inbound, putting GCU freshman midfielder Marios Andreou
in position to send the ball toward the 18-yard line, where fellow freshman Bert Wilton
hit a touch pass to Jellah. The Phoenix native blasted a shot into the net's top right corner.
The teams went back and forth with growing intensity, much like how the 120 Havocs who bused to Irvine, Calif., dueled all night with the UC Irvine student section and band.
GCU's streak of 389 consecutive shutout minutes ended in the most unfortunate fashion. The Lopes fended off the Anteaters' two-striker attack all game but UC Irvine still tied the game in the 70th
minute, when sophomore Ateno Ajeakwa booted the ball toward a pack and the goal from 35 yards out. As GCU freshman Esai Easley
tried to break up the play, the ball caromed off his foot and into the top right corner of the net for a 1-1 tie.
The Lopes recovered, needing a Tasouris kick save in the first overtime when the Anteaters appeared to be in sure golden-goal position.
During penalty kicks, Tasouris stopped Irvine's first shot but GCU spent most of the time playing catch-up. Ramirez, senior defender Sam Gardner
, Tasouris and Andreou all kicked tying scores before the seventh round was GCU's last breath.
"It's hard to digest it all right now," Gardner said. "In the morning, we'll probably still feel bad about it but we can still feel proud of what we did at GCU."
Jellah scored his team-best fourth goal of the season but left the game permanently with 20 minutes remaining in regulation because of an injury to his right ankle, which underwent surgery in May.
"It's tough to take being a senior on the team but I'm proud of GCU and Phoenix, Arizona," Jellah said. "I know it's not the end. There are bigger things in the future."
That was a hard truth for five Lopes seniors – Jellah, Gardner, Ramirez, Alex Radilla
and Shawn Spitzer
. Many players wiped away tears with jerseys pulled over their faces as they crouched on the field in disbelief. Players rushed to console Smith after the last shot was stopped, while Radilla later returned with words of encouragement for Smith.
"It's a hard one to take in right now but we did very well this year and we put the school on the map," said Ramirez, who overcame two knee surgeries to have a special senior season. "Hopefully, there's more to come. We just developed a fighting mentality on this team. We're all fighters and we fought to the very end. Even through PKs, we fought. Hopefully, that stays on with the team for a few years. It's created a culture."
The Lopes had a hard time finding goals this season but their opponents found it even more difficult, as UC Irvine did Thursday. GCU allowed less than a goal per game this season to be a top-25 defense and went 5-0 against teams ranked in the coaches poll's top 25. Until Thursday, the Lopes had the nation's second-longest active winning streak (six).
"Grand Canyon is a great institution with a great coach and great, talented players that come in from all over the world," UC Irvine coach Yossi Raz said. "We knew exactly how talented they were coming into this game so we devoted a lot of time to make sure we were prepared."
Hyndman echoed what players have been saying in recent weeks – that the Lopes became a family over October and November. Players and coaches grew tighter through the experience of landmark wins and disappointing defeats until they found their identity for the stretch run.
Now, a winning culture exists and a GCU soccer tradition has been started.
"I'm very pleased with what the boys have got done," Hyndman said. "My heart is hurting for them because they put everything they had on the field. Awfully proud. The university should be awfully proud of it. We played with class. We played good soccer. And I think we were entertaining as could be."
Follow Paul Coro on Twitter: @paulcoro.