In early summer, behind the Johnny Unitas Stadium at Towson University, it gets green with two minor playing fields braced by dreamy, grassy hills and thick trees. And on this particular day of swelter, the Native American lacrosse chant rose over it all. The sound exudes a stop-in-your-tracks-and-feel-it-in-your-chest kind of chant that hangs in the air.

The next field over boomed a chant “Puerto Rico” in the cadence of “Let’s Go Yank-ees.” And all in between, languages flittered by – Cantonese, Czech, Japanese, Hebrew, not to mention the flexing of English, Irish, Australian, Jamaican and New Zealand accents.

Carmen Navas-Migueloa had to block all that deliciousness out because somehow, at age 15, she is the second-youngest player on the Spanish Women’s National Lacrosse Team. That rare opportunity had her going from her home in Fells Point to stay with her traveling Spanish team staying at Towson University, now hosting 29 teams from 29 nations at the 2022 World Lacrosse Women’s Championship.

Like the Olympics, occurring every four years, this international event could have been anywhere. But now, 10 miles from home doing pregame drills around the goal, yelling in Spanish, her parents Luis and Kelly Navas-Migueloa stood along a hill splitting their thoughts between retreating to shade and resisting, and then failing to do the calculations of how much playing time their daughter will get on the field.

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Even though they watched — a bit stunned at times, even though their daughter took to this sport the moment she got a stick in her hand at age 4 — they knew the reality she found herself in. She was a substitute, waiting for her number to be called. After all, Carmen, a dual citizen, had never played in anything close to an international tournament.

To get a gander at what it exactly means to be a rising junior at Notre Dame Preparatory School on a world team, it would be like if a high school soccer player got asked to play with Megan Rapinoe and the women’s soccer team. Spain, which finished its last international tournament ranked 23rd, is not the women’s USA lacrosse team, which has won eight out of 10 world championships. But the skill-set differential between being a teenager and part of a group of championship-forged athletes, ages ranging from 20s to 40s, can be jarring.

Carmen Navas-Migueloa, 15, is the second youngest player on the Spanish Women's National Lacrosse Team.
Carmen Navas-Migueloa, 15, is the second youngest player on the Spanish Women's National Lacrosse Team. (Charles Cohen for The Baltimore Banner)

She and two other 15-year-olds are called “las niñas,” or the girls, by their older teammates. The day before Spain’s first game, she got a taste of playing against a veteran during a scrimmage with Puerto Rico. Standing and readying herself for a face-off, her opponent finally got a good look at her, asked her age, laughed and said, “Try keeping up with me.” Then she was long gone down the field.

“There’s a lot of DI, DII, [college Division I, Division II] athletes and I was at first very intimated by them,” said Carmen, during a phone interview from the campus that had been converted into an international village. “But on the field, you forget about that.”

For her parents, the experience has been surreal and only felt real when she pulled her official team jersey out of a package in the mail only weeks ago.

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“The face of happiness was unreal,” said her father, who made sure to capture the moment on his phone.

How she got to this moment — like most things — is a combination of skill, luck and tenacity. First, her father Luis was born in Spain, and as a family they routinely made summer trips back home to Madrid.

“I grew up always going to Spain every year to visit family, and all my family lived in Spain,” said Carmen.

Secondly, just out of curiosity, Luis Googled to see if Spain even had a lacrosse team. They did, they sent her a complimentary T-shirt, and then a follow-up question: How old was his daughter and does she play? Luis sent back some videos of Carmen in action and then came an invite to try out.

Heather Kormanik, coach and coordinator for Coppermine, an intensive Baltimore lacrosse program, said it’s not unusual for countries to tap American players, not only because of their skills, but because they grew up in the culture with a stick in their hands.

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“Baltimore, it’s nutty here, good grief … lacrosse,” said Kormanik. “Carmen has been with us since she was little, when she was a peanut.”

Kormanik said it makes sense for a team like Spain to throw Carmen into the mix. She has dedicated her childhood, going through all the stages of lacrosse — from playing in the tot leagues to competing in regional club tournaments against powerhouse teams on the East Coast. Carmen now plays both high school and club lacrosse.

Kormanik also points out that Carmen shares her unique grit with the Spanish women’s national team, which was founded in 2003 and didn’t play in its first world championship until 2017. The Spanish Team spokesperson and ex-player Cristina Grijalba recalled the early days when the aspiring team had to sneak onto an abandoned field shared by other marginalized sports like the Ultimate Frisbee team.

Carmen Navas-Migueloa, 15, is the second youngest player on the Spanish Women's National Lacrosse Team.
Carmen Navas-Migueloa, 15, is the second youngest player on the Spanish Women's National Lacrosse Team. (Charles Cohen for The Baltimore Banner)

“Carmen is a competitor,” said Kormanik. “She came up through the program, which is not easy in Baltimore City,” she said.

In the Baltimore area — specifically the wide-open counties — lacrosse is ubiquitous with little goals set up on lawns and kids streaking across fields training, playing, and grinding away, forever maintaining Baltimore’s status as “the cradle of lacrosse” — a sport that hails from Native Americans and is very much a passion among its people.

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Then there is Carmen and her Fells Point rowhouse. It would be hard pressed to find a kid more concrete-bound. Her street ends at the harbor. Somehow, a wall behind a restaurant was enough to keep her interest in what is known as “wall ball,” a crucial training routine to develop the basic skills, and she had parents willing to drive the endless runs up I-83 to practices, games, tournaments and then press repeat for the next season.

And then there was the deep breath Luis and Kelly took in 2019 when they put their daughter on the plane to catch a practice here and there with the Spanish team, an ambitious ploy to create team chemistry. The pandemic put her before her computer demonstrating stick technique for her coach watching from his screen in Spain.

For any expat, finding a tie back to their home country is emotional currency. Connection to the homeland is rooted in rituals like family recipes and cheering for the national soccer club, of course. But having his American-born daughter play for the national team – that’s gold.

“It’s kind of funny because, you know, she’s got all her cousins and friends in Spain,” said Kelly. But it’s the American cousin who is playing for the Spanish national team.

In June, Carmen had one last practice in Spain to run drills before flying back to Baltimore to finally get to this summer’s day waiting for that whistle to blow — the game-starting whistle against Hong Kong. In real time, it seemed to take forever, as the two players from each team pressed against each other for an edge, forcing the ref to constantly readjust them before allowing the game to start. Within two minutes, it was clear where this game was heading. Hong Kong was beating Spain 2-0 on the way to racking up 12 goals. Spain’s big accomplishment of the day was scoring one goal — and that occurred during the brief moment Carmen was on the field, her father pointed out.

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For parents of athletes, there are always some fantasy tropes of their kid being heroic, coming off the bench to score a goal, the big moments that will make the memories come sidewinding in at surprising angles.

For the Navas-Migueloas, that moment was after the first game, the 12-1 score still hanging on the scoreboard as the Spanish team trudged back up the hill to awaiting parents sitting in the grass under precious shade trees. And there was Carmen in the mix. In that moment, she looked like a kid after a tough lacrosse match — not a player in an international championship. Kelly got up and pulled Carmen’s long, thick braid off her neck to give her red-faced daughter a good look to see if she wasn’t overcome from the heat.

Luis did a fair job waiting two minutes before he gave her a big fatherly hug in front of her teammates. Conversations turned to food — is she eating right, and is she meeting players from other teams? Carmen looked at her fellow teammate, also a high schooler (there are three), and said they are embarking on a mission to interview someone from every team.

“If you walk around the campus, like everyone just brings their cultures together. It’s yeah, it’s fun.”

Then came a roar from another game, between Ireland and New Zealand. The Spanish team would play them both. It was then Carmen reverted to athlete mode, talking about bringing more energy when they would face Ireland at 10 a.m. the next day, being more competitive, stuff that players say when, truthfully, it’s impossible to describe that feeling that she summed up as having the jitters before the game.

Later, she was asked how the team gets psyched before the game. They have a speaker pumping music, she revealed. It’s so big they have to roll it out to the sidelines.

“His name is Jose. We love him,” she said.

Charles Cohen is a freelance journalist, filmmaker and digital storyteller. He is a Baltimore native.

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