By: Paul Coro
Any coach would like for their team to play with the attitude of a top program and compete like an underdog.
Grand Canyon head coach Matt Werle
might have both perspectives in one team. Werle has guided the GCU program to national recognition, staying in the national top 15 for every week last season and opening this season at No. 14. The fourth-year head coach also has a rebuilt roster, following the loss of nine seniors, to garner a last-place prediction from the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Preseason Coaches' Poll.
The Lopes have arrived on the scene but still have much to accomplish.
With seven freshmen and three redshirt freshmen, GCU will begin following up its highest regular-season win total (18) with a season that opens in Santa Barbara, Calif., against No. 1 Long Beach State (Thursday), No. 10 UC Santa Barbara (Friday) and No. 11 Cal State Northridge (Saturday) at the UCSB Asics Invitational.
"I knew that we were going to have some young guys who were very mentally capable to compete at a high level so I wanted to make sure they were exposed to some of the best teams in the country and also allow them to see how they can compete with the best guys in the country," Werle said.
The Lopes have won at least 17 games in three consecutive seasons but have undergone a makeover with the graduation of three all-conference honorees. GCU still will be predicated on playing a clean game to make opponents earn points but is not as undersized as past teams.
"We're definitely playing at a different altitude," Werle said.
The Lopes also will not shuffle lineups as much as the past, shifting from a regular rotation of 12 or 13 players to one of eight or nine. That might include growing pains with the reliance on talented youth, like 6-foot-5 freshman outside hitter Christian Janke
("He can manipulate the ball offensively and hit some funky shots with a large attacking window to make himself available in various areas," Werle said) and 6-3 freshman libero and Chandler (Ariz.) High graduate Cole Udall
. Combining that pair with 6-7 sophomore outside hitter Trevor Weary
, Werle believes he has one of the nation's strongest serve-receive games.
Janke was drawn to a program with positive energy and a push to be greater.
"As soon as I stepped foot in the gym, I knew this is where I wanted to be," Janke said. "They were upbeat and they really wanted to win and I could tell this was going to be a winning program so I wanted to be a part of it. They've always been on an incline for the last few years so I wanted to contribute to that."
Despite having only four upperclassmen, the Lopes do not lack for leadership. Seniors Will Schwob
and Alex Shmelev
are experienced starters, although ankle sprains derailed much of last season for Shmelev.
"I know what I'm here to do," Shmelev said. "I know what's going to happen. I know what it takes. I'm just excited to show what I've learned over the years.
"There's a lot of natural hard work and people's predispositions to volleyball. All the new players seem to be committed. Everybody seems to be on the same page, as far as the expectation for the program. It all comes to a matter of errors and how much of a clean game you can put out against good teams."
, a 6-7 middle blocker, offers more leadership while sophomore Onur Cukur
is a 6-8 presence at the net as a setter.
"He's very good at running middle of the court to get the middles involved and running a quick attack out of the back row," Werle said of Cukur. "I think he's going to distribute the ball over his head pretty well. Everything out in front has been getting a lot more consistent with location."
The Lopes played for the first time in the MPSF last season, when the conference produced half of the Final Four teams (runner-up UCLA and semifinalist BYU). Home-and-home series against a conference full of nationally ranked teams meant a learning curve for the Lopes, who still exceeded preseason poll expectations with a fifth-place finish.
Werle intentionally made a more difficult nonconference schedule to prepare his team for the conference grind.
"We've seen the progress of this program over the years," Werle said. "We're starting to get some national recognition. Last year was the breaking point of it all. We've needed to prove ourselves. We've got that under our belts.
"I'm hoping they have a little bit of a fire underneath themselves to believe that we're better than that (last-place MPSF prediction). Obviously, the staff does or we wouldn't have scheduled the way that we did."
The Lopes' luxury of a tremendous fan following will carry over to this season. GCU led the nation in attendance by venue capacity percentage (73.4) and averaged a program-record 1,101 fans per game at Antelope Gymnasium.
"Pretty much any match we have in Antelope Gym is going to be a really, really, high-intensity level of play," Werle said. "Get in the gym early because I think seats are going to fill up fast."
Follow Paul Coro on Twitter: @paulcoro.