Battle of 6-0 teams looms large as GCU, UTEP head to Portland State tourney

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Klaire Mitchell sets for the Lopes/GCU photo

As Grand Canyon heads from Phoenix to Oregon for a weekend tourmament at Portland State, the Lopes are riding high at 6-0 after losing just one set the first two weekends.

And this is not an anomaly.

GCU was 24-6 in 2019, 13-3 in the WAC, losing to NM State in the league tournament championship match. Then last spring, sixth-year coach Tim Nollan’s squad went 11-3 in a WAC-only regular season before getting knocked out of the conference tourney by Utah Valley, which in turn then beat NM State for the league’s NCAA bid. 

Not only does GCU have a record of 41-9 over its last 50 matches, this past Friday night in the home opener, a sweep of Western Carolina, the Lopes drew a school-record 7,111 fans. 

“It was the first event of the year that students could attend,” Nollan said. “We pumped it up a bit.”

GCU has reason to be pumped. The first weekend, at the Idaho Volleyball Classic, the Lopes swept Eastern Washington and Nevada before beating Idaho in four. 

Then last weekend they swept WCU, Rider, and Villanova. 

Setter Klaire Mitchell, a junior from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, is averaging 9.74 assists. Libero Teagan DeFalco, a graduate student from Long Beach, California, whose brother TJ plays for the USA Olympic team, is averaging 4.95 digs a set and has a team-high 12 aces. A freshman from Phoenix, McKenzie Wise, leads GCU with 79 kills (3.95/set).

Coach Tim Nollan, left, and assistant Jeff Liu/GCU photo

Worth noting is the GCU staff includes Jeff Liu, who is also the technical coordinator for the USA women’s Olympic team. Liu missed part of preseason because he was in Tokyo celebrating gold.

“We have an elite setter who puts our really young pin hitters in good situations a lot,” Nollan said. “We have pretty good ball control with DeFalco at libero, so our first two contacts are always really good.”

While Mitchell was the WAC freshman of the year in 2019 and last spring was the league setter of the year, the defense is pretty stout, too. While GCU is hitting .260 this season, opponents are hitting .115.

The 6-0 start is the best in GCU program history and only Nebraska and Wisconsin have played before bigger home crowds.

“This program has been building to this point and we’re not planning on stopping any time soon,” said Nollan, a former USC assistant. “We want to be the perennial conference winner, the conference champion, and we want to be a perennial NCAA team. The way I look at it is we want to be a San Diego-Pepperdine type program here on the West Coast that’s a top-16 program and one you count on every year to be good.”

At Portland State, GCU plays UTEP of Conference USA, which is also 6-0 and coming off a huge weekend, especially last Friday. 

“They’re good this year,” Nollan said.

The Miners beat the Pac-12’s Arizona in five on Friday afternoon — the program’s first win over a Power 5 team since 2005 — and a couple of hours later swept Northwestern — for its first win ever over a Big Ten team — and then beat NM State in five. 

That prompted third-year coach Ben Wallis to say, “We’ve got a good volleyball team at UTEP, one that I’m proud of to be 6-0 with this schedule. They are going to battle and grind. They’re not afraid. They just decided that they wanted to win, and they executed it.”

UTEP was 13-15 in 2019 and 10-7 last spring.

Later Friday, GCU plays the Big Sky’s Portland State and then Saturday plays Portland of the West Coast Conference. UTEP plays Portland on Friday night and Portland State on Saturday.

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