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USA Lacrosse
| Jun 08, 2023

PELA Providing Community-Based Play for SoCal Girls

By Paul Ohanian | Photo courtesy of Pacific Edge Lacrosse

“If you build it, they will come.”

As someone who earns his living in California’s entertainment industry, hearing that popular movie phase from Stephen Fossati, founder of the Pacific Edge Lacrosse Association, seemed utterly appropriate. After all, a field of dreams can apply to any sport.

For Fossati, a transplant from New Jersey, the dream started eight years ago when his oldest daughter Sophia, a fifth grader at the time, began playing lacrosse in a five-week winter session in Santa Monica. Unfortunately, as spring arrived and Sophia asked to keep playing, Fossati found limited opportunities available.

“The Los Angeles lacrosse environment at that time seemed to be mostly focused on boys’ programs,” Fossati said. “We had about 15 girls for a new team, but we couldn’t find a league to join. We had no one to play. So, we decided to start our own.”

That’s how the Pacific Edge Lacrosse Association, the first all-girls league in Los Angeles, came into being in the spring of 2015. The first season featured about 70 girls split over six teams, with a strong start-up feeling.

“We played a lot of 7-v-7 and 8-v-8 that season,” Fossati said. “It was a very backyard type of thing.”

But word about the all-girls league began to spread, and more programs throughout the Greater Los Angeles area added girls’ teams. PELA became the main umbrella organization that coordinated the schedules, secured field space, and established the guidelines. Fossati credits support from USA Lacrosse as a significant reason for the league’s growth.

“Having the backing of USA Lacrosse was a strong statement to the lacrosse community. It allowed us to establish a strong culture of how things would be done,” he said. “It made a difference.”

Committed to serving girls ages 5 to 15, PELA’s mantra, displayed front and center on their website, states “We believe in giving girls the opportunity, through lacrosse, to grow, learn, achieve, and face challenges together so as to nurture in each of them leadership, self-esteem, and a sense of community. We believe that individually they are strong, bold, fierce, proud, and kind. And we know that together, they are unstoppable.”

Functioning as a not-for-profit association, the organization is run by an all-volunteer board, with Fossati still actively serving in a leadership role.

“He started the PELA program himself and he believes in everything we are doing at USA Lacrosse,” said Steve Kirr, USAL’s senior director for regional development. “It’s a great program.”

In addition to coordinating play for established teams, Pacific Edge seeks to spread the game by supporting new start-ups with free player clinics, coaching assistance, and additional resources. They stand behind the motto that ‘if you try it, you’re going to like it.’

“PELA provides a lot of scholarships in emerging areas that cannot afford full team registration fees,” said Gabe Fowler, USA Lacrosse’s regional manager for the Pacific Southwest region. “They have been doing this for years and this is yet another way to remove barriers from the sport for many girls and families in the SoCal footprint.”

By 2019, Fossati estimates that the league had about 720 participants and lots of momentum. Then COVID arrived, and like sports leagues everywhere, PELA was hit hard, but still able to function.

Despite local restrictions limiting public field access in some communities, PELA was able to find a supportive partner to get girls back on the field.

“We had great collaboration from the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, which gave us field access pretty soon after everything had initially been shut down,” Fossati said. “We were back on the field by the end of April, with certain social distancing guidelines in place, but I believe that access saved the mental health of many kids.”

Now three years removed from the height of the pandemic, PELA’s participation numbers have rebounded, with nearly 600 players and 35 teams during the most recent spring season.

While his oldest daughter, now in college, no longer plays, Fossati’s second daughter, Ava, is an active high school player. He has witnessed the direct impact of the game on them and on hundreds of other girls that have been a part of PELA through the years.

“The power and importance that sports can provide in the development of kids is incredible,” Fossati said. “That’s the reason we do this.”