Schellas Hyndman had a forthright goal in mind when he accepted the position of men’s soccer head coach at Grand Canyon University four years ago.
“My hope coming here was very simple: to make soccer relevant at GCU,” he says.
A pretty tall task considering Arizona is no hotbed for collegiate soccer.
In fact, the Grand Canyon Antelopes are the only Division I university in the state of Arizona to feature a men’s soccer team. Nope, not even heavy-hitters ASU or U of A have men’s soccer teams.
In other words, soccer in our neck of the woods is pretty bleak.
Insert Hyndman: a bit of a legend in the world of soccer, who made previous stops as a head coach at Southern Methodist University and Major League Soccer’s FC Dallas. Hyndman, 66, has 487 college wins to his name – ranked No. 16 for having the most college soccer victories in the nation – over a career that has spanned 40-plus seasons.
In 2010, he was tabbed the Coach of the Year for taking FC Dallas to the MLS Cup Final.
Now he’s in Phoenix, tasked with bringing life to a program that has produced uninspiring soccer in recent seasons.
And in his fourth season at GCU, Hyndman’s seen the interest in soccer on campus turn the corner a bit.
In the team’s home opener, the Lopes knocked off then No. 12 Wisconsin in front of a crowd of 6,648. The attendance marked the largest crowd an Arizona collegiate soccer match has ever seen.
“It was fantastic,” Hyndman says. “It might’ve been one of the best home openers I’ve ever been to at the collegiate level. I think it was a big statement for GCU to continue to say, ‘Hey, we’re your sports team in Arizona.’ We really want to be known as an Arizona sports program. This is something you don’t see other places in the country.”
Certainly not. But in Arizona? It’s almost unheard of to see the spike in interest the soccer program at Grand Canyon has received.
Four years ago, Alex Radilla was a senior in high school. Already committed to the University of Incarnate Word to play soccer, Radilla still went on his unofficial to GCU.
On day one of his visit, Radilla says he broke off his previous allegiance and announced his commitment to play for the Lopes later that same day.
“I knew (Hyndman) from Dallas and I knew I was coming into good hands and that’s what I wanted. I wanted to develop and I wanted to get better as a player. I knew they had a vision,” Radilla says.
The marriage of Radilla and GCU has been beneficial for both sides over the last four years. The senior midfielder has been a catalyst for Hyndman dating back to the fall of 2015, where he was one of four players to start 17 games his freshman year.
Radilla scored just the second goal of his career to put the Lopes on the board early during the Wisconsin game.
The engineer behind the Wisconsin win was Radilla’s fellow senior midfielder, Alex Ramirez.
The Phoenix-native Ramirez assisted on both goals during the 2-1 home-opener against the Badgers.
Both Radilla and Ramirez have been instrumental in putting the Lopes on the map, who were ranked No. 24 in the country after wins over Wisconsin and then-No. 20 Creighton.
“The more wins we can get, the more support we’re going to get. If we can continue to have a good season, keep getting wins, keep getting the fans back, I think it’s just going to continue to grow,” Ramirez says.
The last winning season GCU men’s soccer enjoyed came in 2012, when it posted a 16-3-1 record and advanced to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament.
Since then, they’ve haven’t won more than seven games in a season.
Hence the excitement for the 3-2 start and two of those wins coming against some of the country’s top teams.
Hyndman gave credit to the outpouring support the soccer program has received from GCU’s “Havocs” – the university’s student section and self-proclaimed “pride for GCU athletics.”
GCU, after two home soccer matches this season, was drawing more than 5,000 people per game, according to arizonasports.com.
Again, just unheard of here.
But in order to draw the boisterous crowd that has previously eluded them, the Lopes need to produce winning, meaningful soccer. Hyndman drew similarities to the talent he puts on the field and the kind of recruiting Grand Canyon has made an effort to do.
“I think the players we’re bringing in now, they’re not always just about the talent, they’re about the talent and the character. Hard workers, good human beings, good people. That became a part of our recruiting. Every time we found a player we like, we checklist off on getting recommendations from coaches, players that knew him, and also from opposing coaches that played against him.”
The finished result has been a spark of fascination in soccer in Phoenix, where Grand Canyon has its sights set on winning its Western Athletic Conference, and even bigger, a National Championship. The Lopes’ last national title came in 1996, when they were a Division II school.
The perception of Grand Canyon’s athletics is that Dan Majerle’s basketball program rules the school. In a way, it does. Majerle played for those great Phoenix Suns teams in the late-80s to the mid-90s that always found themselves immersed in playoff basketball.
Since spearheading the Lopes’ basketball program in their first season as a Division I team in 2013, Majerle has done a wonderful job of putting GCU on the map.
But don’t forget about Schellas Hyndman, who’s worked himself into that conversation of Grand Canyon sports’ sovereignty.
Hyndman’s been a key player in birthing an interest in Phoenix of collegiate soccer and has the chance to do something incredibly special inside the gates of Grand Canyon University.
And who better to slide-tackle the growth of soccer in this state than one of the winningest college soccer coaches the nation’s ever seen?