Seeing Double: Lacrosse Growth in Long Beach has Roots in Los Altos

The gradual hum of a blue Southwest plane did nothing to drown out the chatter from second-grader Harper Segura. She gripped her lacrosse stick and bounced shots into the PUGG goal situated on the well-manicured grass adjacent to her East Long Beach, California home.

“Goal!” she screamed as she ran around the yard, shadow-dodging defenders and showing off the skills that she had learned at a USA Lacrosse Sankofa clinic just weeks earlier.

Three miles down Interstate 405, the hum of a Boeing 737 accompanied his steps as Santino DiGangi rushed into his bedroom and grabbed a brown leather notebook — one he’d been using religiously since earlier this year to track every practice and game in which he competed.

“Yesterday, you can see I have Flex6 Lacrosse written down — April 27, 2023,” he said. “Here are some games where I write down my notes.”

DiGangi, 11, flipped to a page that contained a detailed account of each shot he faced in a recent Beach Cities Lacrosse game, featuring blank circles for each shot he saved and a shaded circle for those that he let in.

He’s starting to journal his every movement on the field for his future self. He wants to play college lacrosse one day.

“I hope I can look back on a game where I didn’t do so well, or this game where I had a 59.1 save percentage,” he said. “I can say, ‘Oh, look how far I’ve come. I had 59.1 when I was 11. Now I’m 18 and in NCAA and I have 70.’”

“Lacrosse ... allows something for everyone.”

— Jesse Pazdernik

Sandwiched between the Segura and DiGangi households is the building and organizations that gave life to their lacrosse ambitions. The Los Altos Family YMCA sits in the heart of the Los Altos neighborhood of Long Beach, a city rich in diversity and sports lore that boasts a population of 500,000.

Jesse Pazdernik, the executive director of the Los Altos Family YMCA, reflected on the influence that lacrosse has had in just two years in Long Beach.

Pazdernik reached out to USA Lacrosse in 2021 looking to add another sport to the organization’s already robust programming. The YMCA held a TryLax clinic in October of that year, and the interest in lacrosse around Pazdernik’s community has skyrocketed.

“You’re bringing in a sport that has different skills and development and then bridging that with the YMCA, which is an organization that prides itself on youth development,” Pazdernik said. “What better sport than lacrosse, which is working through youth development, to combine with the Y? I’ve seen it grow in other places. It was a perfect fit.”

Less than two years after introducing lacrosse to the Los Altos community, USA Lacrosse returned to host a Sankofa clinic in April. A total of 130 children picked up a stick, learned the fundamentals of lacrosse and left with an appreciation for a new sport.

“When I stepped onto the field, I was like ‘Woah,’” Santino DiGangi said. “I thought there was going to be 20 kids. I had to stop for a second and make sure I wasn’t seeing double. My first thought was, ‘This sport grew.’ I was happy because that meant more teams, more opponents, more leagues, more people knowing about this ancient sport that has roots in this land.”

The lacrosse movement in Long Beach has roots in Los Altos, a tight-knit neighborhood on the eastern part of town, adjacent to the Cal State Long Beach campus. Population in the area surged after World War II. The Los Altos Family YMCA was built in 1963 to give children an outlet to create their own communities and develop.

Now six decades later, the Los Altos Family YMCA — which butts up against Whaley Park and boasts over 1,800 members — has become the primary outlet in the community for children to socialize, stay active and be introduced to a variety of sports.

By 2021, the YMCA offered sports like basketball, dance, flag football, swimming, gymnastics, soccer and martial arts. Pazdernik, who grew up attending a local YMCA in Wisconsin and had been introduced to lacrosse while working in San Diego, thought America’s oldest sport offered plenty for the children of Los Altos.

“Lacrosse was really a natural fit for the YMCA,” Pazdernik said. “It allows something for everyone. Every age can play, both boys and girls. They can play at a fast pace. There are so many things that you can learn.”

Pazdernik reached out to USA Lacrosse in the summer of 2021 looking for ways to introduce lacrosse in Los Altos. Through his conversations with senior director of regional development Steve Kirr and Pacific Southwest regional manager Gabe Fowler, Pazdernik secured the resources for a coaches’ clinic to allow lacrosse to be taught at approximately 48 Long Beach Unified School District Schools. USA Lacrosse marshaled the coaches and equipment for a TryLax event in Long Beach that October.

More than 40 children attended the clinic, which came with a co-branded jersey, hardship membership and a universal stick. It kickstarted a Flex6 Lacrosse league at the Los Altos Family YMCA just a few months later. Pazdernik also brought lacrosse to schools across Long Beach, hoping to ignite a movement at the youth level that could bleed into high schools and beyond.

“USA Lacrosse has been just super. Not only the resources but also the responsiveness has been fantastic,” Pazdernik said. “We were able to just bounce ideas off of them and how they've done it in different areas, in different communities.”


Pazdernik spent the ensuing weeks and months building interest around lacrosse at the Los Altos Family YMCA. The Flex6 Lacrosse league ran weekly to allow children to learn the sport in a comfortable, one-hour format. In April, more than 130 children showed up for a USA Lacrosse Sankofa clinic at Long Beach City College.

“I was moved. 130 kids at 8 a.m. on a Saturday, learning how to play lacrosse,” said Mike DiGangi, Santino's father. “You want to talk about growing the sport of lacrosse, grassroots level? That’s what the Y is doing.”

For Pazdernik, who has watched the sport grow over the past 18 months, the turnout provided even more motivation to move forward. “It was all you could ask for in a two-hour clinic,” he said. “They left asking, ‘When are you going to do this again?’ It was a gorgeous portrait of the sport and new kids getting an opportunity to play.”

Segura, a second-grader whose two mothers had no experience with lacrosse, had taken part in plenty of extracurricular activities (according to her) — swimming, coding, soccer, fencing, Minecraft — but lacrosse was her new passion. She's talkative. She’ll tell you about her lemonade stand that netted her $100 and show you her Irish jig. She’ll even offer to battle you in Pokemon.

Now, lacrosse has become part of the discussion.

“It’s very, very, very, very, very confusing, but very fun,” Segura said. “I like it because it’s very different from the other sports I heard about. When I score, people start cheering on the sidelines and I’ve experienced that many times.”

Neenon Segura is a Black woman that works at NASA’s jet propulsion lab. Leticia Segura is a first-generation citizen who moved to the U.S. from Belize when she was a child. As she makes friends and finds new sports at the YMCA, Harper Segura’s parents want to make sure she doesn’t feel isolated by her heritage.

“Because I’m African-American and she’s a mixture, I still want her to see some of me and some of herself out there,” Neenon Segura said. “Most of the sports out here are a melting pot, so I think we can strive for even more.”

Mike DiGangi, born in Yonkers, N.Y., picked up lacrosse as he was growing up and fell in love with the game while training at the Naval Academy. Now based in Long Beach, DiGangi has supported his two sons (Santino and Dominic) in whatever sport they chose. When Santino asked about lacrosse at age 5, they learned the Beach Cities Lacrosse program offered teams starting at the U8 level.

“The kid turns 8. He’s at his eighth birthday party. He hasn’t even gotten his cake, and he's like, ‘Hey, Dad, you know what this means?’” Mike DiGangi said. “I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘I can play lacrosse.’”

Santino DiGangi took a moment away from hitting the rebounder with his goalie stick to pick up the phone on the porch. USA Lacrosse arranged a surprise FaceTime with U.S. U21 goalie and soon-to-be NCAA champion Liam Entenmann — someone he admired and emulated.

“I’m a huge fan,” he said, his hands shaking as he held the phone. “I play goalie, too.”

They talked for 15 minutes about goalkeeping and how the Notre Dame star got to the next level. DiGangi asked Entenmann specific questions about preparation and how to handle the mental side of standing in the cage. When the call ended, he gripped  his goalie stick tightly.

“That just made my year," he said.

“It’s not every day you get to meet your hero,” his father answered.

Santino DiGangi and his younger brother, Dominic, had both played lacrosse before it came to their local YMCA. They participate in the Flex6  Lacrosse league anyway, sometimes offering pointers to peers who are picking up a stick for the first time. There's a lacrosse movement afoot in a city with a rich professional sports background.

“There is not a professional sport that Long Beach hasn’t produced top-tier talent in,” Mike DiGangi said. “In football, there are more Long Beach athletes than any other city per capita. Ever heard of Billie Jean King? She’s from Long Beach. Heard of Tony Gwynn? Long Beach. You can’t tell me that some of the kids that are out there participating in sports today, if you put a lacrosse stick in their hand, that they’re not going to be phenomenal athletes. It’s a wrap.”

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