Four years ago, Ray Ryan approached sixth-grader Ben Acosta with an idea: come tryout for the lacrosse team and learn a new sport. The history teacher and lacrosse coach at All Saints Academy in Winter Haven, Florida, saw something in the soccer player despite his height and weight deficiencies. Acosta was reluctant but ultimately picked up a stick.
“If you would have told me back then that he’d be going just a few years later to represent his heritage and the nation of Peru at the 2018 World Games, I would have found that pretty hard to believe,” Ryan said.
In July, Acosta will put a Peruvian shirt just in time to become a high school upperclassman. At 16, he will be by far the youngest member of Team Peru and one of the youngest players in the 2018 World Championships, joined by Ryan as Peru’s head coach. Furthermore, Acosta will likely be a key part of Peru’s defense, and teammate and Peru team captain Chris Davila predicted he will start in spite of his 5-foot-7 frame.
In not even half a decade, Acosta has gone from ignorant to international, and he did it through hard work.
Henry Acosta, Ben’s father, said his son wasn’t a star athlete growing up. In fact, when he was playing soccer in his younger days, he was far from it.
“When he was little and growing up playing soccer, he was not your best player,” Henry said. “He wasn’t running fast, he wasn’t very athletic. It got to the point where he realized he needed to put a lot more effort into it, and his whole attitude and style of play changed. Just wanting to not sit on the bench made him become a better athlete. But it wasn’t like that in the beginning. He wasn’t born that way.”
During the school year, Ben Acosta arrives home around 7 p.m. during the week after school and practice, with game days bringing him home as late as 10 or 11 p.m., allowing barely any time for schoolwork. Saturdays often hold more practice time and summer vacation brings travel ball. That doesn’t include the other times during the year when extra free time really means more lacrosse time.
“(His mother Katherine Loh) and I tell him, and his coach tells him all the time, you can have the skills, but if you don’t practice, someone who doesn’t have the skills but practices more is eventually going to become better than you, and I think that’s something he always believes,” Henry said. “It’s the effort he puts into it that makes him better than what he is. I never thought he would be playing in this situation right now, but he is because of his determination and wanting to accept that positive influence.”
As valuable as his work ethic is, teammates and coaches clamored about Ben’s willingness and eagerness to compete. Last fall, Ben played his first minutes in a Peru shirt at the 2017 Great Pumpkin Shootout Tournament in Palm Coast, Florida. For Davila, it was his first time meeting and seeing Ben play.
Davila, who played lacrosse at High Point from 2013 to 2015, said he was skeptical when he learned a 16-year-old would be playing on the team and going up against full-grown adults, but that worry vanished quickly.
In one game at the tournament, Ben Acosta was tasked with defending a player nearly a foot taller than him, and he stepped up to the challenge.
“He locked this guy down,” Davila said. “For how big he is, I think he’s very strong for his age and competes really well against a lot of the bigger guys. He kind of brings a sense of maturity. If you looked at how well he plays versus how old he is, you wouldn’t think he’s that young, and there’s no problem at all with him being in the World Games. He’s going to compete against a lot of the better guys.”
This will be Ben’s first major international lacrosse debut, and with his age and stature, opposing teams will likely target him. But Marty Ward, who helped coach Ben for a few years and played in the 2006 and 2014 World Championships, agreed with Davila that he trusts Ben to manage the moment.
“He’s going to make mistakes just like every other player makes mistakes,” Ward said. “He’s got a good stick, he’s a grinder, he’s a tough kid. The pressure will get to him probably a little bit, but it gets to everybody at that level. He’s going to have a fine tournament.”
Only a handful of days away from suiting up in Israel, the nerves are coming for the teenager. He knows these will be the biggest games of his career up to this point, and he knows he has never had these many eyes on him with a stick in his hand. But for as much anxiety at the situation can bring, he knows playing bigger and older competition is in his element.
“When I first started lacrosse, I would play with the U17 or U18 guys. Kids were two times my size, and I was just starting the game,” Ben said. “I’ve always played with older people. I’m not the biggest on the field, but I try my hardest, and I don’t let that put me down. I just work harder thinking I’m not the best, and if I keep pushing myself, I know I can keep up with these guys.”
The World Championships will give Ben Acosta valuable experience as a lacrosse player as he moves closer to college lacrosse, but he will also have the honor of wearing the colors of his father’s home country: Peru.
Although Ben was born in Pittsburgh and has otherwise lived in Florida, his connection to Peru is strong. He has spent good portions of his summers the last few years in his father’s hometown of Abancay, a town of roughly 60,000 nestled among the Andes in south-central Peru, visiting his grandmother and many extended family members who still live there.
“It used to be a very small town away from everything, just mountains and valleys and not a lot of people, but then recently nearby they discovered mines, so now it’s a little bit more crowded,” Loh said. “It’s a great place to unplug because there is no Internet. Your phone isn’t going to work there.”
Nothing is more calming than a month away at grandma’s.
“It’s like my second home,” Ben said. “It’s a place for me to unplug, relax and forget about all the stressful stuff back in Florida, in school, in lacrosse, whatever. It’s a place for me to feel relaxed and at home.”
For Henry, he’s delighted to see what his son has achieved already in only four years of playing the game, but it’s deeper than that.
“We are proud he is not just playing for his school and being one of the best players there, but representing the country where I was born,” he explained. “At the same time, he is also a role model for his younger brother, who also plays lacrosse. That makes me very happy that he is the person representing me, all my family and Peru.”
Ben’s influence on his younger brother, Alex, has led the 13-year-old to follow Ben’s footsteps in lacrosse. The two practice together constantly, and Alex was called up last spring to play varsity while in eighth grade like Ben was a couple years ago.
“Pretty much in all aspects, whether he wants to admit it or not, Alex follows his brother,” Henry said. “He picks up the stick, he picks up the same clothes, he does the same thing his brother does. The good thing is Ben is responsible. He’s always guiding Alex in the right way. ‘Alex, this is not right, this is not something you should be doing, you need to behave better.’ It’s like an older, responsible brother who is guiding him, and he looks up to him.”
Although the thought seemed far-fetched not long ago, it’s possible Ben and Alex Acosta will play alongside one another in Peru jerseys, representing their father’s country together. To Ryan, Ben’s story provides a lesson anyone can learn.
“It’s a great example of what hard work and dedication can lead to once you fall in love with a sport or anything really,” Ryan said.
This article was originally published July 8, 2018.
UPDATE: Ben Acosta is now a freshman lacrosse player at NCAA Division II Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Florida.