Big Island battle: Easley, GCU top Tolentino-Perry, San Jose St. for league title, NCAA tourney berth

It did not take Big Island soccer standout Esai Easley long to make a large impact at the next level.

Playing for Grand Canyon University in Arizona, Easley helped lead the Lopes to the Western Athletic Conference Championship in only the school’s second year of postseason eligibility.

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The Grand Canyon freshman started the final six games of the season on the back line after returning from an injury and the Lopes went undefeated over that span, including three 1-0 victories in the WAC tournament — the last coming against San Jose State for the title.

The victory over Spartans in the championship game was bittersweet for Easley, who found himself going head-to-head with another former Big Island standout in Kalei Tolentino-Perry.

“He is a striker and I am a defender so usually I want to play against someone I don’t like,” said Easley of the on-field match-up. “We have a history together and he is somewhere in my heart. It wasn’t something I liked, but it was cool to see two Big Island boys on the field in the WAC championship.”

Easley and Tolentino-Perry are used to going head-to-head. They met across the field many times while Easley was playing for Kona Crush and Tolentino-Perry was playing for Na Hoa O Puna. They also met during Easley’s short time at Makua Lani when Tolentino-Perry was playing for Hilo.

However, they also shared a little history playing together with the Crush.

“I played with him for a year and we also attended several camps together,” Easley said.

Easley started his career on the Big Island but pursued many opportunities to play on the mainland, including stops with the De Anza Force, Seattle Sounders Academy, Manchester Youth Academy and Chievo Verona Youth Academy.

While Tolentino-Perry’s season ended in the WAC title game, Easley’s team moved on to the NCAA tournament for the first time in the school’s short history at the Division I level.

“It was a historic moment for the school and the program,” Easley said. “We had never won a conference tournament game before. Last year we lost to UNLV in the first game of the tournament.”

This is the sixth year for Grand Canyon at the D-I level and the second year the team has been able to play in the WAC tournament.

The team managed to win six straight games for the first time in D-I, and they did so behind Easley and the defense, which also includes freshman goaltender George Tasouris.

Every bit of defensive help was needed with the Lopes only scoring eight goals over the six-game winning streak. The team won 12 of their 20 games this season via shutout and 16 of 20 by only one goal.

“I came in working hard this season and it has been a great experience,” Easley said. “I enjoy the coaching staff here and my teammates.”

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Grand Canyon will play UC Irvine in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Thursday.

“We are playing well right now and we want to keep on playing well,” Easley said. “We have not lost since I have been in the starting lineup and I want to continue to do the best that I can to help this team win.”

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