ENCINITAS — Two local middle school girls are getting the opportunity of a lifetime to work with the Los Angeles Lakers organization to help encourage more girls to play sports.
Thirteen-year-old friends Sage Ligotti and Rachel Buczek, who are eighth-graders at Diegueño Middle School, applied for a new program called Game Growers, sponsored by Nike, and were selected as finalists.
According to the Game Growers website, by the time girls reach eighth grade they are 50% more likely to drop out of sports than boys, creating barriers both physically and socially that can last a lifetime. The site says it’s time to change the game “and we believe it starts by listening to girls.”
Game Growers gives eighth-grade girls the opportunity to share their ideas on how to get more girls to play sports. Girls team up and complete an online application and then participating WNBA and NBA teams select one team of girls who become their Game Growers.
Rachel’s mom Kara Buczek said she stumbled across Game Growers on her Facebook feed and thought it was something the girls would be interested in doing. She and Sage’s mom Emily Ligotti surprised the girls on Dec. 19 with the news that the Lakers had selected them to work with — complete with a video from retired NBA great and former Laker Robert Horry, and Lakers swag.
“Our parents kept it a secret from us,” Sage said, saying they were expecting to get an email about whether they had been chosen by Dec. 15. “I was checking my email and I told my mom ‘Oh, we didn’t get an email, that’s alright.’ And then today they’re like, ‘You actually did make it’ and I was like, ‘What?’”
“I was in complete shock, I didn’t know what to say,” Rachel said. “I was so excited because the Lakers are my favorite team.”
In their application, Sage and Rachel created a program called Caterpillar Course, which is for girls who have never really played sports to try them out.
“The problem for girls, we think, is that the stigma of trying a new sport with people that are better than you is, like, really hard for some girls,” Sage said. “It can be kind of embarrassing to be practicing with someone you know is way better than you and it really discourages girls from trying sports.”
Sage said the way Caterpillar Course works is to bring girls together in a non-competitive way to learn the rules and how to play a number of different sports. In other words, it’s the athletic transformation from a caterpillar to a butterfly.
“It erases the stigma of having other levels or people trying out with you because all these people are at the same level,” she said. “It’s kind of just like a sample of sports for girls to inspire themselves into trying it and so it makes the bridge from being a beginner to a skilled player a lot easier to get through.”
Emily Ligotti said Sage experienced firsthand what it feels like to be new to a sport that others around her were more skilled at when she encouraged her to start playing lacrosse.
“It was very intimidating, very scary, and she wanted to not go, she wanted to quit because she had to learn with a bunch of kids that already knew (how to play),” Emily said. “She had this experience that really highlighted the issue that eighth-grade girls are dropping out of sports at a record rate.”
The next step for Sage, who also plays basketball and runs cross-country, and Rachel, who plays basketball, is to be flown out to visit Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, next month and work with Nike and the Lakers to create a game plan for their idea. The selected game plans will be shared during the Game Growers Showcase at the 2020 WNBA Draft in April.
“It’s quite an honor and I feel Rachel and Sage will definitely do a good job representing the Lakers,” Kara Buczek said. “We’re very proud of them.”
Sage said she’s super excited to go to Oregon and work on their idea, saying she likes “to plan stuff, that’s one of my personality traits.”
She’s hoping their game plan will help make a difference.
“I can relate to this problem on a really personal level and knowing that I’m helping other people out there with the same problem is really reassuring to me and, like, awesome that I get like a chance to kind of change the world.”
Tawny McCray is a native San Diegan and graduate of San Diego State University. She has known she wanted to be a journalist since writing for her Jr. High School newspaper in 1991. She has worked at The Star News in Chula Vista, The San Diego Union Tribune and ABC 10News San Diego. She has recently freelanced for Scripps Ranch News and The Poway Eagle and is a longtime freelancer with creators.com. She is working on authoring books with her twin sister, Nyla. She and her husband have two kids and live in South Park.