“¡Wepa! ¡Vamos Puerto Rico!” The eruption of cheers from Puerto Rican families roared in every game the U21 Puerto Rican national team played during the 2022 World Lacrosse Men’s U21 Championship in Limerick, Ireland. The Puerto Rican supporters were unmatched, according to Marist attackman Joshua Balcarcel, as they showed their support throughout the 12 day tournament in August.
This tournament was originally slated to take place two summers ago, back when the Puerto Rican team was still U19, but the COVID-19 pandemic pushed it back a lengthy two years.
Although the tournament started Aug. 10, the team arrived early after flying out of John F. Kennedy airport on Aug. 6, a day Balcarcel will never forget. During the plane ride, countless thoughts and emotions ran through his head.
“The suspense and the anxiety, the excitement, so many different emotions that I was feeling leading up to it because it was one of those things you’ve been talking about for years and then you’re finally there,” said Balcarcel. “You’re just like, ‘oh my gosh,’ there’s no going back; it was surreal.”
The team had only played one tournament together going into these championships, but chemistry developed quickly. They instantly clicked thanks to their Puerto Rican background, in addition to already having a lot in common since they were selected to play for the team in 2019. Balcarcel knew the team would perform before they even set foot on the plane.
On opening day, the World Lacrosse Men’s U21 Championship held an opening ceremony that introduced all 23 teams, with Puerto Rico being first-time participants.
“All 23 teams were there with their flag and dressed in either a traditional outfit that is worn in their country or gear with their country’s name,” said Balcarcel. “For Puerto Rico, we decided to wear the traditional guayabera, which is a nicely designed white button down.”
Despite the ceremony taking place on opening day, Puerto Rico had to wait another night to play their first opponent, Israel. On game day, they woke up, ate breakfast and prepared for their one o’clock match.
“Before [the] games, we would go to one of our dorms and we’d listen to music to get game ready,” said Balcarcel. “EDM, rap, and of course Bad Bunny.”
When it was time to walk out onto the field and warm up in the dry, 75 degree weather, the players were greeted by a sea of red, white, and blue dominating the stands with flags of the island spread out across. The amount of Puerto Rican families that showed up to the field in that game and in each of the following games was incredible to Balcarcel. Then came the time to line up for the national anthems; as Puerto Rico’s “La Borinqueña” blared on the speakers, it reminded the team of who they were representing.
“Seeing my family, my teammates’ families in the stands brought so much Puerto Rican pride,” said Balcarcel. “I just looked at the name on my chest, saw what I’m representing, saw the flag that we’re representing, and that was all the motivation we needed to perform our best.”
Sure enough, the team fed off of the motivation from their supporters and channeled it into an 11-3 victory over Israel, a game which included two goals and two assists from Balcarcel. The performance was a clear sign that the team was going to be competitive in this tournament.
“After that first game against Israel, we were able to really see each player’s strengths and weaknesses, and then build off of that from there,” said Balcarcel.
In their second game, they continued their positive momentum by prevailing over The Czech Republic 12-6, this time with a hat trick and an assist coming from Balcarcel – four points in back-to-back games.
The Puerto Rican national team suffered their first loss to Japan in a closely contested game 10-9, but Balcarcel again scored a hat trick. At the end of the group stage, he had scored eight goals and three assists with a 2-1 record to finish second in Group B, closely behind Japan.
Balcarcel’s streak carried into next game as he notched two goals and three assists in their 17-5 pummeling of Germany, which helped determine Puerto Rico’s seeding and their opponent, that being eventual champion United States.
Puerto Rico lost 21-3. Balcarcel did not score or assist in that game, and the team could only place fifth at best.
The next contest they played the Czech Republic and won 19-7 with Balcarcel surprising no one with yet another hat trick. They subsequently squared off against England attempting to punch their ticket into the fifth-place game. He scored another three goals, but the team fell short and lost 10-9.
Following that defeat, the national team was placed in the seventh-place game against tournament-host Ireland. In another heartbreaker, they lost by a single goal, 12-11, to finish 8th out of 23 teams. Balcarcel tacked on one last goal and two more assists in the final game, bringing his tally up to 17 goals and eight assists for a total of 25 points in eight games. For his efforts, Balcarcel was named to the “President’s Team,” which consists of the top 10 athletes outside of the Pool A teams.
Despite the losses, the Puerto Rican families never stopped cheering “Wepa” or “Vamos Puerto Rico.” They never stopped supporting one another in the island’s first appearance in the lacrosse world championships. The team itself never stopped believing and put their Puerto Rican blood, sweat, and tears into this competition to bring pride for their beloved island of just over three million people.
“It was super emotional at the end because we were with each other for 16 days straight with a regimen of breakfast, lunch, and dinner, practicing and games, ” said Balcarcel after the tournament concluded. “We experienced so much in such a little time, and there’s the potential that I’ll never play with those guys again or see the guys again.”
According to Balcarcel, most of the players, including himself, are too old to continue to play for the U21 national team. Their next steps will be to try out for the Puerto Rican men’s national team, which is set to play in the 2023 World Lacrosse Championship starting June 21 in San Diego, California.
Balcarcel is eternally grateful for the opportunity he received to play with the Puerto Rican national team, a group that he considers to be family. Now, Balcarcel returns to his other family, the Red Foxes. The team held its first practice Sept. 11., and he goes into this season looking to build off his sophomore year, when he played in every game and finished with seven goals and two assists.
“I think that island trip really helped my confidence, so just going into this season, I plan on taking a lot more shots,” said Balacarcel.
Balcarcel knows that no matter where each national team player is across the country, they will always have each other’s backs and support.
“¡Wepa!” and “¡Vamos Puerto Rico!” from the loud cheers and chants of those families who electrified Limerick’s fields will continue to motivate Balcarcel into this season and beyond.
Edited by Dan Aulbach and Luke Sassa
Photo courtesy of Jose Esquilin Photography