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DEFYING THE ODDS: How Canton girl became one of top LAX players in U.S.

 DEFYING THE ODDS: How Canton girl became one of top LAX players in U.S.

Mileena Cotter, a senior-to-be at Salem, is the third best Class of 2024 girls lacrosse player in the United States, according to Inside Lacrosse magazine.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Mileena Cotter’s remarkable ascension in the East Coast-dominated world of girls lacrosse is comparable to a dazzling rose blooming in the middle of a barren desert.

You see, Cotter is a lifelong resident of Canton, which is a great place to grow up.

However, on the landscape of collegiate lacrosse recruiting, Canton — like most Midwest communities — is akin to a suburb of Death Valley.

In a recent ranking of the United States’ top 10 Class of 2024 girls lacrosse players compiled by Inside Lacrosse magazine, Cotter is No. 3 — the only player on the list from the Midwest, let alone Michigan.

“Cotter turned heads all year,” IL raved last fall. “She creates her own shot well, with the ability to score off both the dodge and off-ball.

“Cotter plays with her head up, and draws slides thanks to a quick first step, and has displayed a knack for finding the open player right off the dodge.”

Orange crush

After earning offers to play for a Who’s Who of college lacrosse programs, Cotter has committed to play college lacrosse for Syracuse University, arguably the NCAA’s most-heralded program and a participant in the 2023 NCAA Division 1 Final 4.

Mileena Cotter is pictured while playing for Salem during the 2023 season
Mileena Cotter is pictured while playing for Salem during the 2023 season

The personable, easy-to-smile daughter of Paul and Lisa Cotter — and younger sister of Paul (a member of the 2023 Stanley Cup champion Vegas Golden Knights) and Jack (a fast-rising junior hockey league star) — Cotter’s journey to Syracuse, New York, is as compelling as it is improbable.

“Being from Michigan, I didn’t even know what lacrosse was until I was in fourth or fifth grade,” Cotter reflected Saturday morning. “Up to that point in elementary school I had tried just about every other sport — soccer, tennis, hockey, gymnastics — but nothing clicked.”

Then one day, the Cotters’ nanny, Katie Kirchoff, who at the time was a Concordia University lacrosse player, brought a lacrosse stick to the Cotters’ home.

Mileena Cotter is pictured with Katie Kirchoff
Mileena Cotter is pictured with Katie Kirchoff

“Katie told me, ‘Once you finish your homework, we’ll go outside and I’ll teach you how to play’,” Cotter remembered. “She started teaching me the basics and — for whatever reason — it just clicked.”

‘Goal’den start

A short time later, Cotter’s parents registered their youngest child for a local lacrosse league.

She scored a goal in her first game.

“And I haven’t stopped playing since,” she said, smiling.

Given the scarcity of lacrosse training opportunities in Wayne County, the Cotters were forced to get creative when it came to Mileena’s development in the sport.

“My parents and I like to joke that it was kind of like when Rocky had to find some unconventional training (before fighting Ivan Drago) in Rocky IV, carrying huge logs through the snow, stuff like that,” Mileena shared.

“Nothing came easily, but my parents did whatever they could to find people who could help me get better.”

No excuses

While her East Coast lacrosse-loving peers were usually just a short drive from lacrosse-focused facilities and trainers, the Cotters often trekked to Bloomfield Hills and beyond for skills-sharpening sessions with top-level instructors like Nick Diegle, Greg Courter, Troy Burrell, Sean Higgins and Chris Kolon.

Mileena Cotter sprints past defenders during a national all star game
Mileena Cotter sprints past defenders during a national all star game

Not every training facility required a long drive — just some imagination.

“I was having a hard time finding a place to play wall ball around here, to work on my passing and shooting,” she said. “One day, though, I found a perfect wall to practice with on the (Plymouth-Canton Educational) Park campus.”

The wall was book-ended by two dumpsters, but Cotter wasn’t complaining.

“I’ve really been blessed to be able to work with some of the best lacrosse and speed-and-agility trainers in southeast Michigan,” she said.

“We always say in our family, ‘If you do more, you can expect more.'”

Sibling inspiration

Mileena said the work her brothers have put in to secure their paths to high-level success on hockey rinks serves as daily inspiration for her.

“Both Paul and Jack have gone through so much — I’ve seen all their high and lows and everything they’ve had to work through,” she said. “We all may have started at the bottom of our sport at one time or another, but we never give up.”

Undoubtedly the most impactful lacrosse-related endeavor Mileena has embraced is playing for the Maryland-based, nationally-ranked Sky Walkers travel team the past three summers.

Mileena Cotter is pictured with future Syracuse teammate Lexi Reber
Mileena Cotter is pictured with future Syracuse teammate Lexi Reber

Securing a roster spot on the highly-regarded squad was challenging to say the least.

“My brother Jack was playing for the Maryland Black Bears (junior hockey team) one summer three years ago,” Mileena said. “Since we were going to be out there for a little while, I called the coaches of the top five teams in the area to see if I could attend a practice and maybe get a look.

“They were like, ‘What!?’ They had never heard of such a thing, especially from a girl from Michigan.”

The ‘Sky’ is the limit

Sky Walkers coach Michael McLaughlin was one of two coaches to return her calls.

“The first time he called me, he asked me a ton of questions, about myself, lacrosse — we were on the phone for about an hour and, honestly, I wasn’t prepared,” Mileena recalled.

“We talked a few more times and the more I talked to him, the more comfortable I felt.”

McLaughlin ultimately invited the Michigander to participate in a Sky Walkers practice.

“After the first practice (three years ago), he asked me to be on the team,” she said. “That was a special moment. My mom and I both had tears streaming down our cheeks we were so happy.”

“Michael had the biggest impact on Mileena, giving a chance to a Michigan girl trying out for one of the top … teams in the country,” Lisa Cotter said.

“Because of this chance, Mileena worked hard and flourished to be one of the top recruits in the country. We owe him so much.”

Summer travels

Lisa and Mileena Cotter have spent roughly two months the past three summers living in Owings Mills, Maryland (a suburb of Baltimore), so Mileena can compete for the Sky Walkers.

“Lacrosse is a totally different game on the East Coast than anywhere else,” she said. “The players are quicker, the game is faster. That’s why I try to train 20% harder year-round so I can keep up with the competition.”

When Mileena experiences a proverbial bump in the road, she turns to her family and faith for reassurance.

“God is at the center of my heart,” she said. “During times when I’m feeling doubt or worry, I reach for my Bible and find the answers.

“My family has been unbelievably supportive through my journey. I can’t thank them enough.”

Ed Wright can be reached at 734-664-4657 or

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Ed Wright

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