(Photo: Jodi Vosika/ASU Lacrosse)
This is all new to the Arizona State Sun Devils.
With an undefeated record heading into their final battle of the regular season, the top spot in the MCLA rankings in hand, and the designation as the top lacrosse team in Arizona on the line, this spring is shaping up like none other for the team.
It’s something they’re embracing, though. It’s something that has created a focused group set on achieving their lofty goals.
“The whole team has taken on a different mindset,” senior captain Ian Connell said following Wednesday’s practice, one in which intensity levels were visibly raised. “It’s not a matter of if we’re gonna lose or what’s gonna happen if this happens. It’s we’re gonna win, we’re gonna make the right plays, we’re gonna beat this team.”
The unlucky opponent standing in the way this week just so happens to present possibly the toughest task to date for the Sun Devils. The Grand Canyon University Antelopes will come in to ASU West Campus on Saturday as winners of nine straight and tied atop the SLC alongside Arizona State.
The Lopes have crept their way up to the sixth spot in the MLCA rankings and their two losses match the second-lowest total in the entire SLC, behind only the zero that hangs in the ‘L’ column for the Sun Devils.
But what’s really stirred the pot heading into Saturday’s showdown of in-state rivals is their brief and recent history. Grand Canyon asserted themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the MCLA with their 14-13 overtime victory over Arizona State last season. The win put them on the map and quickly altered the landscape of college lacrosse in the state.
“We definitely want to redeem ourselves from last year,” Connell said. “Losing to them was the first time we ever lost to them for this program, so I know we definitely want to come out and avenge that loss as well as finish the season undefeated and take the number one seed into our conference tournament. So there’s a lot of excitement in there.”
What will work in the Sun Devils’ favor this time around is their experience in dealing with wearing a target on their backs. They have adjusted well to the intensity that is demanded in games involving the top team in the country.
With GCU coming in, the stakes are even higher.
“We don’t like to have wake up calls, so we turned it around then,” senior captain Justin Straker said in reference to his team’s 11-7 victory over the University of Arizona on April 5. “With them (GCU) beating us last year, that speaks for itself. It’s kind of a newly ignited rivalry, but at the same time it’s the number six team coming in and it’s a conference game for the number one spot in our division. So we just need to come out there. We’ll have the energy and we’ll have the firepower.”
After just a few minutes spent around this team, it becomes clear what their focus is: themselves.
Rarely do the Sun Devils spend much time worrying about their opponent and what they might be planning; that isn’t to say that they ignore any film and scouting reports they may have. If anything, it goes to reinforce the mindset that has embodied this year’s squad.
“It’s all about us,” Nick Hillier, also a senior captain, said. “We do a couple things here and there to prepare for teams, but a lot of the things that we do it’s all about us. When we do things right, we win games. So you gotta have good defense, good transition defense, and possess the ball.”
It’s a game plan that’s certainly worked for them so far, yet it’s also one that has to be universally accepted by the team for it work. All players must hold themselves accountable. Any lack of intensity or preparation could spell doom for the Sun Devils.
“Compared to the last few weeks, this week has definitely picked up a little bit,” Straker said in regards to his team’s effort level. “Everyone’s working a lot harder, they’re a little more focused. I don’t know if that’s about our competition this week but it’s definitely good to see that out there. Everyone’s getting work in before and after practice so the effort is there.”
The effort will have to be there on Saturday. They know this.
The Lopes will come in with a chip on their shoulder, ready not only to knock off the MCLA’s top team but also to claim the top spot in conference heading into the playoffs. They’d like to hold on to their crown as the reigning lacrosse powerhouse in Arizona, too.
The Sun Devils know this, as well.
“You’re just going to see everything that every player’s got,” Hillier said looking ahead to Saturday’s showdown. “Everyone’s going to leave it all on the field. I know that for a fact. We’re going to hit ’em hard right away, we’re going to put some goals in the net, step on their throats and just never let ’em breathe.”
“I don’t see why we shouldn’t come out ready to play. I know I will,” Connell said. “I see these guys working hard out here (at practice), so I can’t imagine they’re not going to bring it on Saturday, especially against these guys as in-state rivals. We want to beat ‘em, show we’re the top team in arizona, the top team in the SLC.”
Perhaps the best indicator of how ready the Sun Devils are lies in the words they had for GCU — or really, the lack of words.
In response to being asked if they had any sort of message for the Lopes heading into Saturday, Straker, Hillier and Connell each had the same mum response. They simply have no time to worry about the specific opponent, only winning.
For Arizona State, it’s all about themselves. If they play on Saturday the way they have all season, the way that has placed them on the winning side of each of their 13 games, there is little reason to think that they’ll wind up anywhere but on that winning side yet again.