Remarkable turnaround by Grand Canyon men’s hockey club team earns Lopes first ACHA nationals appearance

The GCU men’s club hockey is seeded No. 17 and faces 16th seed Illinois State in the American Collegiate Hockey Association National Championships. (Photo by Bennett Silvyn/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – The road to St. Louis started out bumpy for Grand Canyon University’s men’s hockey team. The potholes were deep and ragged, and by the time the Antelopes steadied themselves and found direction, they had dropped eight of their first 10 games of the season.

But now here they are, riding a nine-game winning streak to finish the regular season as one of the hottest club teams in the country and on the precipice of the American Collegiate Hockey Association’s National Championships. After earning their first invite to the tournament, the Lopes, seeded No. 17, face 16th seed Illinois State University Thursday night at St. Louis’ Maryville University Hockey Center in a first round Division 1 game.

The Antelopes, in their fifth season since joining the Division 1 level, secured an at-large bid this year by virtue of finishing 17th in the final rankings.

“It was a sense of relief of accomplishing a goal,” GCU coach Daniel Roy said about receiving the bid. “It was a sense of relief that we did it, but knowing that there’s no time to take a breath and wait, now we have to put the extra work in.”

Roy has coached the Lopes since the program’s beginning, nursing it at the Division 2 level in 2016-17 and, in just the Lopes’ second season, leading GCU to what would be the first of three Division 2 regional appearances.

The Lopes are one of six Western Collegiate Hockey League conference teams to earn a ticket to the nationals, along with third-seeded Central Oklahoma, fifth-seeded UNLV, 12th-seeded Utah, 13th-seeded Arizona and 21st-seeded Missouri State. The Lopes defeated four out of those five teams at least once this season.

After opening the regular season with a pair of non-conference victories against Northern Arizona, GCU went 0-7-1 in Division 1 play before getting its first victory against Oregon on Oct. 27, sparking a run of 17 wins across the Lopes’ final 23 games.

“I know we didn’t have the start we wanted, but I think we came back second semester and just kind of sat down as a team and it was gut-check time, and we had goals set day one,” senior defenseman Kory Potach said. “We were not on track to meet them and it was do or die for us.”

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The Lopes created the most damage once the calendar pages flipped to 2024. They started off the semester ranked far outside of the Top 25, but then the Lopes won three out of four games against Arizona State in the first two weekends of January. After a tough 7-2 loss in Salt Lake City against Utah on Jan. 19, the Lopes beat Utah in a rematch the following night and did not lose again.

During the winning streak, the Lopes won six games against ranked opponents, with five of those six teams ranked in the top 15.

“I think winning a couple of games in the first semester was huge for us.It gave us the confidence we needed to push forward,” said senior transfer goalie Riley Morgan, who recorded the first shutout in GCU Div. I history on Nov. 18 in a 6-0 win over San Diego State.

Leading the way offensively for Grand Canyon is Hunter Schmitz, a sophomore from Anchorage, Alaska. Schmitz finished the year with 15 goals and 36 points, and recorded both game-winners in a pair of massive wins for GCU against No. 3-ranked Central Oklahoma to end the Lopes’ regular season.

“I think with each win it built confidence in our team,” Schmitz said about the winning streak. “I think the things we imagined ourselves doing were finally happening, and with each win we got stronger and stronger.”

Thursday’s first round game between GCU (19-14 overall, 9-11 WCHL) and Illinois State (22-11 overall) marks the first meeting between the two programs and Roy knows all about the implications of the national tournament, which runs for 10 days and will be broadcast on the streaming platform FloHockey. The winner between GCU and Illinois State advances to the second round, where they will play the nation’s top team, Minot State out of North Dakota. The Lopes dropped a pair of away games to Minot State in early December, but that was before GCU began to steer itself out of the ditch.

“As somebody who’s been out to the ACHA national tournament as a player and as a coach, I do understand that everybody’s gonna be fully prepared and a completely different team than in the regular season,” Roy said.

Potach, who was on the very first Division 1 Lopes team in 2019-20, hopes he and his teammates can continue to ride the crest of GCU’s remarkable season turnaround. If the Lopes win their next five games, they will be crowned ACHA national champions.

“It says a lot,” Potach said of the club’s resiliency. “You know we came together as a team, we grew as close as any team that I’ve been on.”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Connor Manning expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Manning has interned as a sports play-by-play announcer, play analyst and radio show co-host for Varsity Media Foundation in Phoenix.

Bennett Silvyn BEH-nit SIL-vin
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Bennett Silvyn expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in business, marketing and sports management. Silvyn has interned in marketing and social media for the Arizona Sports and Entertainment Commission, as a reporter for Arizona Foothills Magazine, in sponsorships for the Arizona Rattlers and in social and digital media for FC Tucson. Silvyn has also reported for the Walter Cronkite Sports Network and The State Press.