growing the game

The journey for Giselle Carrillo, here with her dad Peter, has taken her more than 2,800 miles away from home to a Division 1 women’s lacrosse program in upstate New York. (Carrillo family/Submitted)

Lacrosse is the fastest-growing sport in America over the past 15 years, according to the NCAA. Interest in the game has mushroomed in recent decades, and grassroots efforts have helped kick-start significant growth beyond the northeast part of the country, considered the mecca for the sport.

Harlem Lacrosse — and Harlem Lacrosse Los Angeles — are prime examples of that evolution and success. The mission of Harlem Lacrosse is to provide opportunities, relationships and experiences that activate the skills and traits to put youth on a path to success as students, athletes and citizens. The program’s vision is to empower kids who are most at risk for academic decline and dropout to rise above their challenges and reach their full potential.

“Lacrosse opened doors for me, especially when it came to college. Everyone deserves the same opportunities,” said Maddy Buss, former Harlem Lacrosse LA coach and Duke graduate. “What has meant the most to me is gaining the girls trust, and being someone they can count on, especially when things in their lives aren’t going well.”

Local area Harlem Lacrosse program sites include Compton High School, and Davis Middle School and Walton School in Compton. In addition to Los Angeles, the program thrives in Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York, where Harlem Lacrosse began more than 20 years ago.

One of the best indicators of how far the program has come here in just five years is in the form of their star students taking their talents to another level.

Peter Carrillo is a single father with one daughter. He manages a restaurant in Downey and is a working actor who balanced auditions, a staff, and his daughter Giselle first playing the game in sixth grade after Harlem Lacrosse came to her school and put a stick in her hand.

“They would come to school, pick her up and take her to the fields,” Carrillo said. “Everyone was at the same level, which helped her enjoyment. It was fun, and she immediately made friends.

“I knew about lacrosse when she wanted to play but hadn’t paid a lot of attention to it. I went to the first game and felt it would be a good hobby. I didn’t know much about the game when I was watching. I had a lot to learn.”

Giselle is now in her sophomore season at the University of Albany and is a member of the Great Danes lax team.

Marycruz Diaz and her husband Caesar have three children. Their two girls have been associated with Harlem Lacrosse for years.

Samantha Diaz and Giselle were teammates with Harlem. She now plays at Ohio Wesleyan University. Cemary, a high school junior and Sam’s sister, has verbally committed to play at Xavier University as a scholar-athlete.

“Maddy was the one of the coaches and would come to our school. Her and the other coaches are still like family. They are college graduates, role models. They still remain invested in these girls.”

Lacrosse does face several challenges: Cost and diversity are prevalent.

Predominantly white and one of the least diverse in the United States, Marycruz admitted one of her daughters has faced challenges playing outside SoCal because of her ethnicity. It took on a “a different vibe at times,” said the mom, but her daughter is “absolutely stronger for it,” as it helped show she belonged on her own merits.

“The first time Giselle traveled outside of California is when she felt discomfort of her race,” Peter said. “She went to her first big tournament and faced high-level competition. When you’re lined up against athletes who are not Latinos and you go and compete versus non-Latino athletes, you question whether it is your athleticism that will allow you to perform or if it is because she is Latina. Insecurities exist.”

Lacrosse can also be rather unwelcoming because of the cost to play.

Buy a stick, cleats and goggles. The boy’s game also needs a helmet, padding and gloves. Join a club team (or two) and prepare to travel for camps, clinics, private lessons and tournaments.

It seemingly favors those with money. Marycruz said she knows her girls are involved in college lacrosse because of that initial opportunity.

“I remember when Samantha came home with a stick,” she described. “It was important that it was fun, but the program also heavily emphasized going to school and getting good grades. School came first. The reward was lacrosse. These girls have all also worked extremely hard.”

“Harlem Lacrosse handled everything initially including the costs,” Peter added. “Once Giselle kept moving up, you quickly understand it is not a cheap endeavor.”

The Harlem Lacrosse program model works. Generous donations, countless volunteers and key community partnerships over the past 10 years helped lead to more than 1,500 participants and 41 full-time program directors (including Buss).

Tight relationships last as well. Val Garcia and Diamond Velasco, teammates of Giselle and Samantha with Harlem, remain teammates. They play together at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado.

“They should be very proud of their hard work and sacrifices,” Buss said. “They did it. They accomplished their goals.”

Carrillo looks back on the journey, and the enjoyment hasn’t stopped. He recently experienced a dream scenario himself.

Making the trek east to support his daughter’s sporting career, he was on hand while she played at Harvard. Peter said he could not help but laugh thinking how his daughter’s journey has evolved.

“We went from the local fields here to the Harvard University fields. From Harlem to Harvard. Pretty crazy and a great deal of fun.”