This article appears in the April 2020 edition of US Lacrosse Magazine. Don't get the print edition? Become a US Lacrosse member today and help support the positive development of the sport.

Sowing the seeds of lacrosse has been a passion for Gabe Fowler, who worked to open more opportunities while first with the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation and now as Pacific Southwest manager with US Lacrosse.

“We’re trying to bolster the ranks out here in terms of youth participation and overall lacrosse growth and expansion,” said Fowler, who grew up in California. 

US Lacrosse is advocating for the addition of lacrosse into the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles as a host sport, and part of its strategic plan for 2019-2023 is increasing the sport’s profile in the area. Fowler is targeting a huge youth population through the Parks and Rec department.

“That market is kind of untouched,” he said. “They already have the infrastructure and they already have the kids, and now they just need a modified version of the game. That’s where there is a lack of lacrosse.”

Los Angeles County has thousands of kids playing other sports that Fowler would like to turn on to lacrosse. It helps that high schools have begun to add the sport. The CIF-Southern Section, the governing body for high school athletics in most of Southern California (567 schools), will stage its first boys’ and girls’ lacrosse state championships in May.

“If we target the younger age to get them understanding the sport and get interested in the sport at a younger age, reaching that 5-6-7-year-old age range, then those kids as they progress and get better and continue in the sport, they’ll stay in the sport longer,” said Sam Estrada, recreation service manager at LA County Parks and Rec. 

Fowler would like to see the county roll its lacrosse program into its free Parks After Dark summer program. US Lacrosse is committed to providing a full package of support which would include equipment such as sticks, soft balls and small goals and a program geared toward small sided, co-gender, no-contact play. Coaching education and training would be a key component provided by US Lacrosse to LA County Parks and Rec staff.

“If we attach lacrosse to our sports program, it’s a cycle and it will just grow and grow,” Estrada said. “And eventually it becomes bigger not just in the parks, but in the schools that may not have lacrosse.”

To really grow lacrosse in greater LA, local leaders say, you must create a pathway to play. Kids who discover the sport at the county level could feed into a US Lacrosse partner league like the Pacific Edge Lacrosse Association. Founded in 2014 by Stephen Fossati, the girls’ league offers community-based teams a chance to play each other while representing their towns.

“The idea behind it was if you build it, they will come,” Fossati said. “The first year, there were literally 70 girls total. We would all share players. It was a pretty small season. We made it bigger and formalized it the following year. Once there was a legitimate and regular place for girls to compete, the programs that already existed as boys’ programs decided to start girls’ programs. Now we’re at almost 700 girls six years later.”

The (good) problem then becomes producing qualified coaches and officials.

Brian Eisenberg, who has been coaching in the area since 2000, has experience at every level of lacrosse from youth through college. He started So Cal Youth Lacrosse for boys in 2005 and North Orange County Lacrosse for girls in 2012. A US Lacrosse First Stick Program grant helped the latter get off the ground.

Eisenberg hopes he can use US Lacrosse Coach Development Program resources to help parents learn the game before they coach. US Lacrosse training and funding also helped the PELA improve umpire training to promote safety and higher-level officiating. The USC women’s lacrosse coaching staff and notable U.S. national team players like Kylie Ohlmiller, who will pen “Kylie’s Korner” for the PELA this spring, run clinics and offer role models.

When LA County offered girls’ lacrosse for a short period of time starting in 2014, it boosted both programs. Now they’re trying to bring it back.

“My vision has always been to grow the game,” Eisenberg said.

US Lacrosse hopes that the growth initiatives at various levels — youth, high school and college —  in greater Los Angeles will keep the sport on the radar of the International Olympic Committee. Lacrosse became a provisionally recognized sport by the IOC in November 2018.

Estrada’s vision sees beyond 2028, however.

“lt’s our mission to have it keep going,” he said, “and be sustainable past the Olympics.”