In September 2019, two months before officially committing to Marist for lacrosse, sophomore Joshua Balcarcel did something that changed his life forever– he tried out for the lacrosse national team. Yes, the colors were red, white, and blue, but not of the United States, but of the island of Puerto Rico.
To understand how he got there, you must go back to one of his most outstanding performances to this day and a critical memory for Balcarcel.
Delaware Valley High School, 2017 Mother’s Day. A young man wearing number one on his back put himself on college coaches’ radars with an incredible playoff performance. First shot: goal. Second shot: goal. Third shot: goal, Fourth, fifth, and sixth all goals. Everything Balcarcel shot found the nylon netting.
His six goals helped his high school defeat Dallas Lacrosse 9-7, after losing to them twice earlier in that season. Following the win, the varsity coach gave him the game ball, which he gave to his mother, one of his biggest supporters throughout his entire life.
Balcarcel was born in the Bronx, N.Y. to a Puerto Rican mother and a Guatemalan father. He lived on Staten Island until he was five years old when he and his family moved to Milford, Pennsylvania.
Balcarcel grew up in a baseball family as his parents played in co-ed softball leagues; his twin sisters played softball in high school, and his brother played baseball his entire life, including a year at the collegiate level. Balcarcel also played baseball his whole life– basketball, football, and swimming, too– until he had to pick between those and lacrosse in August of 2017 as their seasons coincided during the spring.
However, Barcarcel didn’t start playing lacrosse until he was in the sixth grade, fairly late compared to others according to him. His sixth-grade friends are the reason he started playing the sport because they dragged him in.
“As soon as I started, man, I fell in love with it. It was unlike any other sport,” said Balcarcel “And just that competitive aspect was more than any other sport I played, so I stuck with it.”.
Three years later, he found himself as a starting attacker on the varsity lacrosse team at Delaware Valley High School. That year he played in 21 games, scored 57 goals– including the six in the playoff game– and had 21 assists for a total of 78 points.
In 39 games the following two seasons he racked up 107 goals and notched 90 assists, which broke the school’s all-time assists record and would’ve been more if COVID-19 hadn’t halted the world in early 2020. He also earned the team’s most valuable player award his junior year, was named the Wyoming Valley Conference all-star all three years, and was named to the Times-Tribune All-Region Team his sophomore and junior year.
Balcarcel played for the varsity football team as well. In four years as a running back, he amassed 3,285 rushing yards and scored 43 total touchdowns. His high school football career gauged the interest of three Division I schools, none of which he reached out to because he knew he wanted to play lacrosse in college.
His hunger for the sport drove him to try out for the Under Armour All-American Team for three years starting the summer before his freshman year of high school– failing to make the team each year he tried out. But the day after the tryouts of June 2018, Marist’s assistant lacrosse coach Dave Scarcello reached out to him and asked if he knew about Marist, to which Balcarcel admitted he didn’t. At that point, he was very close to committing to Stevenson University in Maryland, a Division III school. He had gone to the school’s camps, had established a relationship with the coach, and was almost certain he was going to become a Mustang before the Red Foxes had entered the picture.
A week after Scarcello reached out to him, he and his parents traveled to Poughkeepsie to see what the school and lacrosse program was really about.
“I fell in love with the campus. The coaches were amazing. They were [and still are] very upfront and honest and I think that’s what sold me,” said Balcarcel. “After that visit, I basically made my decision. It wasn’t complex for me. I did it with ease.”
After the visit, Balcarcel called the Stevenson coach and told him he wasn’t going to attend their school. After a couple more visits to Poughkeepsie, he verbally committed to Marist on Nov. 6, 2018.
Marist men’s lacrosse head coach Keegan Wilkinson remembers when Balcarcel came to Poughkeepsie to visit the campus in September of 2018. “I thought one of the funniest things, and we still laugh about it, is when Josh came up and committed, his dad looks at me and goes, ‘I bet you’ve never had a Guate-Rican on your team,’” said Wilkinson.
“He’s just an amazing kid and teammate, which I think makes him somebody that the guys really enjoy being around and is somebody they love going to work with every day,” said Wilkinson. “He’s one of our hardest working guys, both on the field and in the classroom, and is athletically a supremely gifted athlete, so we’re really, really fortunate to have him.”
In November of 2019, Balcarcel made it official by signing his National Letter of Intent surrounded by his parents, high school principal, two assistant lacrosse coaches, his guidance counselor, and the head coach for the Delaware Valley high school lacrosse team.
Just a month before officially committing to Marist and the month following his national team tryout, October, he, at last, got a call from Puerto Rican National Team head coach Shawn Mowry saying he had made the team, an agonizingly long wait for the decision.
“I was at home and it was a little while after the tryout,” said Balcarcel. “We were told after the tryout that he’d [Coach Mowry] reach out and call. And it was taking a while. I was nervous, I just wanted to know. So he called and was like yeah, you’re in. And he’s like, ‘I’m expecting a lot from you. I want you to quarterback this offense.’ I guess I’d made a really good impression.”
Indeed, Balcarcel made a spectacular impression as the current U21 Puerto Rican National Team head coach Shawn Mowry said it took all of 20 minutes to watch him play and say, “we need to have this kid on our team.”
“On the field, he’s one of the smartest guys out there,” said Mowry “Where he might lack in size, he makes up for it with his game IQ. Extremely smart on the field, doesn’t make a ton of mistakes. He was out there looking to make the right play. The team comes first, and that’s just the type of attitude and play that Josh plays with,”
The summer after he made the team, the national team was set to play in the 2020 World Lacrosse U19 Men’s Championship at the University of Limerick, Ireland. Unfortunately, COVID-19 pushed the tournament back to the summer of 2021, which was then postponed again to the summer of 2022.
Finally, for Balcarcel and the rest of the team, they had their first practice together outside of Philadelphia this past July. He described it as awesome with, “a whole bunch of Puerto Rican families, Spanish families going crazy.”
His few experiences with the national team so far have been very different compared to those he’s had at Marist because they can all relate to little things in Puerto Rican and Hispanic culture. Things like foods, drinks, music, TV shows, and even language– which he can speak. Not only that, but geographically, the national team players come from different states across the country with some living in Connecticut, Florida, Arizona, and even one from Puerto Rico, meaning they have fewer in-person interactions together.
Ideally, Mowry would’ve liked to hold more practices if it wasn’t for how far apart players were from each other, and none of them go to the same school, which is entirely out of their control and make the moments they do have together much more important. Despite the distance, he says the players are very close with each other, having to maintain relationships through social media and messaging apps.
Being of Puerto Rican descent is something Balcarcel takes pride in and even more so as he pointed out is that the sport is predominantly white. According to a 2020 demographic survey done by the NCAA, 83 percent of college lacrosse players identify as white, down five percent since 2012.
“It feels awesome just being able to represent Puerto Rico and being able to act as a role model or be idolized by unknown kids in Puerto Rico or kids that are in the US that are Puerto Rican, who maybe are discouraged to start playing, to just give it a try,” said Balcarcel. “I’m excited to represent, of course, Puerto Rico and represent the island.”
The chemistry the team already has off of a few practices from the summer will be beneficial when they head to Springfield, Mass. from May 27-30 for the Heritage Cup in preparation for the 2022 World Lacrosse Men’s U21 World Championship. The men’s championship will still take place at the University of Limerick in Ireland and will take place August 10-20 with a record 23 teams participating.
Barcarcel still has three months of lacrosse ahead of him to improve his shooting and build up confidence, the two things that he was struggling with his freshman year of college, even calling his confidence “terrible.” Coach Wilkinson and the rest of the coaches know that the potential is there and that it’s only a matter of continuing to work on those two aspects of the game to reach that potential.
Wilkinson gave Balcarcel a book this winter break, Mind Gym, to help him with the mental side of the game. The book emphasizes the importance of the mental game in sports, cultivating mental toughness, slowing your mind down, and loving, learning and laboring in sports.
“He was able to digest it [Mind Gym] over the winter break before we returned for practice, and in classic Josh fashion he wrote all this stuff he wanted to share with me, he just totally ate it up,” said Wilkinson. “I knew it was something that he would really take seriously, but I can’t take credit for how he’s playing right now; he’s doing an amazing job and I hope that helped him a little bit.”
Apart from Wilkinson, Balcarcel also gives credit to all of his coaches, family, and friends over the years for helping him grow and become the player and person he is now because their support has made him even more hard-working and passionate for the sport of lacrosse.
His passion and work ethic are showing more now as he has already scored a goal and assisted two in his first three games of the season, an encouraging start to his sophomore campaign.
To Balcarcel, it’s more than just his personal success, it’s the MAAC Championship that the team eyes in May. To reach that goal, the players will have to win more games, which starts with shooting and finding the nylon netting before being able to play for the red, white, and blue that is the Puerto Rican National team.
Edited by Dan Aulbach and Bridget Reilly