The growth of Puerto Rico into a lacrosse power has been fast.
In women’s lacrosse, the National Governing Body held tryouts for its first-ever U19 team in 2018, one year before the junior world championship in Canada. In its first appearance in the tournament, Puerto Rico went undefeated and finished in the top 10. Success has followed in other competitions, including top-10 finishes for the women’s senior team in 2022, and the men’s junior and senior teams.
Ahead of the 2024 World Lacrosse Women’s U20 Championship in Hong Kong, China, set for August, the mission remains the same, even with a track record of success on which to build.
“The goal of Puerto Rico Lacrosse is to get sticks in hands for as many people on the island as possible,” said Sophia Lugo, head coach of the women’s U20 team. “But also, we want to foster Puerto Rican athletes around the world and provide a home for Puerto Rican athletes to play the sport they love and express their identity.”
Puerto Rico continues to grow participation at a rapid rate on the island, but also enjoys a talented pool of players with Puerto Rican heritage who have experience in high school and college in the United States.
“We get a lot of questions about our validity and our worthiness, and I think it does a disservice to the sport, and the athletes and staff members who work very hard to be there,” says Lugo. “We do this as a labor of love for our island and the sport we love so much.”
At the women’s U20 level, so much of that work isn’t just on the field – it’s about shaping young women and allowing them to have a space to develop who they are.
“This is special age group and I want the young women to understand what they are experiencing,” said Lugo. “I want them to tap into their nationality, where they come from, their Latinidad, and all of that is special to me. Our goal is to provide these players a space where they can let loose and play with full confidence.”
Two athletes on the team playing in their second women’s U20 championship are sisters Isabella and Gabriella Henson-Vendrell, who both play at Villanova University in the United States. Their older sister was involved with Puerto Rico lacrosse as early as 2018, and the pair tried out for the U20 team that competed in 2019 at ages 15 and 16.
“We were the youngest on that team and to continue with the organization since then, through a senior world championship to now being the oldest on the U20 team, is full circle and pretty special,” said Isabella Henson-Vendrell.
“Our entire family is from Puerto Rico, and when we can play the sport we love and embrace our culture and heritage, we never take that opportunity for granted,” said Gabriella Henson-Vendrell. “It was paying homage to our family, making our parents proud and our family on the island. We’ll never forget our roots and in that first tournament, whenever they played the anthem, we had tears in our eyes for how much it meant to play for our island.”
That feeling has been a connection among many players of the team who felt like they could finally be themselves around each other.
“I think normally we play without a lot of people of color on our teams, but when we first played together with other Puerto Ricans, we were so happy to be there with people who understood where we come from and how hard it was to get there,” said Isabella Henson-Vendrell.
Both sisters highlighted how the atmosphere their parents and supporters create with instruments and chanting matters and that the emotion and energy of the team helps propel them forward. They also agreed that in general, sharing love for Latin music around the team helps everyone connect culturally at another level.
Lugo believes all the chemistry and connection helps the team perform.
“I think in any space when you have to have codeswitch or find ways to fit in, it can be a hard process, whether it’s things like speaking Spanish, parents not being able to cheer as loud, or not having your name pronounced correctly,” said Lugo. “But what we saw from that first U19 team is that there’s extra level of confidence when you don’t have to worry about fitting in. When you’re playing with your sisters and there’s commonality between everybody, there’s a different level of swag.”
The new group training ahead of the 2024 championship has felt that chemistry grow even with a small number of practices.
“It’s intangible, but I’ve coached for a long time and the way that we’ve come together and had success so quickly is a testament to sharing that Puerto Rican energy,” said Lugo.
“Our pride is something we carry though everything we do in the organization and the more prideful we are, the more it transforms what we do on the field,” said Gabriella Henson-Vendrell.
The growth in just one cycle has been tangible too. Both sisters and Lugo noted how the player pool has exponentially grown with more Puerto Rican girls wanting to celebrate their heritage.
“When you come to a Puerto Rico Lacrosse event, you become part of our family, and that’s truly what it is, and it just keeps growing,” said Lugo.
The increased size of the player pool, and the layering of experience for players and coaches alike, has raised expectations for a Puerto Rico team has set its sights high for the competition in Hong Kong.
“I think there’s excitement that will come out on the field with our speed and aggressiveness in defense and attack,” said Lugo. “That comes from the unifying message from Puerto Rico Lacrosse, which is ‘Our Island, Our Story,” and we want to take ownership of our story on and off the field and push that as much as possible.”
“People have opinions and want to tell us what our story is, if we belong and if we’re American and XYZ,” said Lugo. “But we want to take control of our story, which is that we come from this very tiny island in the Caribbean and have so much pride and identity.”
Lugo and her staff’s belief is infectious.
“Don’t sleep on Puerto Rico Lacrosse,” said Isabella Henson-Vendrell. “We went 8-0 last time, but we have goals that have changed now that the stakes are higher. We want to get into that top five – we have the talent and staff to get to that level. We’re here to stay and we want to shock the world.”
Even though Puerto Rico only became a member of World Lacrosse in 2016, the energy of the organization’s explosive trajectory is hard to deny. And whatever happens at the women’s U20 championship will be yet another step forward.
“In the next decade, we’re going to have more players from Puerto Rico and just grow our presence on the island,” said Gabriella Henson-Vendrell. “Every national team does training camps on the island, and it’s amazing to watch kids experience the sport for the first time. Puerto Rico has a strong sporting culture, and we want lacrosse to be up there with the other popular sports, and our continued growth and fundraising will make it more affordable for the community.”
“With this group specifically, seeing young women play has a big impact on girls on the island who are interested in lacrosse and developing,” said Lugo. “We ensure that every one of our athletes understands those are the kids we are playing for, the actual stories and connections, and that makes us play a little harder.”