WAC honor on hand, Kailua-Kona native leads Grand Canyon into NCAA D-I men’s soccer tournament

  • Esai Easley

  • Grand Canyon photo Esai Easley was named Western Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year for Grand Canyon, which opens play today at the NCAA Division I soccer tournament.

Esai Easley chose competitive soccer over surfing at the age of 10, and it wasn’t long until the Kailua-Kona youngster went all in.

After his freshman season at Makua Lani in 2015, Easley chose to leave home. Then 15, he signed to play for the Seattle Sounders Academy, telling West Hawaii Today the opportunity was too big to pass up.

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It’s safe to say Easley chose wisely.

The Grand Canyon University senior was recently honored as Western Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year, spearheading the back line at midfield and fullback for the No. 25 Antelopes, who are set to host an NCAA Division I tournament match for the first time.

“There’s no better way to end my career,” Easley said in a school release. “It would top everything … It puts everything on top so that’s the goal.

“When I first came in, making a top 25 poll was a huge deal. Now, I can’t even think of weeks when we weren’t in the polls. It speaks volumes to how this program is moving forward.”

Grand Canyon (15-3-1) hosts Denver at 5 p.m. Hawaii time Thursday in Phoenix in the first round of its third trip to the NCAA tournament in four seasons.

Easley helped the Antelopes win the WAC regular season title with the 24th-best goals against average in the country. In the WAC tournament title match, Grand Canyon fell in penalty kicks, though Easley was named to the all-tournament team.

A graduate of Berean Christian in West Palm Beach, Fla., he’s been a mainstay in Grand Canyon’s starting lineup since the fifth match of his freshman season.

“I came as a young kid wanting to learn and I am leaving as definitely more of a man,” Easley, a finance and economics major, said in a school release. “It’s cool to see that I’ve given everything to this program and there’s been things that came out from that. I can move on with my head held high that I was one of the ones to elevate it to something special.”

That drive Easley showed as a youngster in Kailua-Kona could help him embark on a pro career. He’s set to play for the Portland Timbers’ Under-23 development team this summer.

Grand Canyon coach Leonard Griffin considers Easley a key cog in his three-back system, which allows him to thrive as a two-way player. Easley has helped the Antelopes lower their goals allowed average (WAC-best 0.88) and increase their goals scored average (WAC-best 2.24) from last season’s NCAA tournament team.

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“Esai always puts the team first, which is huge for me and the culture we’ve been trying to implement as a new staff,” Griffin said in a release. “It’s been really cool to see him grow and develop as a senior leader and how well he’s adjusted to a new system and formation with positive questions and an eagerness to learn.

“Esai has the potential to do really well at the next level. If he gets into the right environment and shows well in preseason, I think he could turn some heads. The sky’s the limit.”