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Mileena Cotter had an 18-goal game earlier this season and has helped turn Salem around.

Mileena Cotter Forging Her Own Path in Lacrosse

May 17, 2024
Jonah Rosenblum
Cotter Family

Salem High School in Canton is not known for lacrosse.

Nope, Michigan girls’ lacrosse has typically centered around Bloomfield Hills, Brighton, East Grand Rapids and Rockford.

One of the greatest players in Mitten State history, however, plays for the Rocks.

That’s Syracuse commit Mileena Cotter.

Cotter has Salem sitting at 11-3 with a regional playoff game upcoming Friday night against Plymouth. That’s a sizable jump after hovering around the .500 mark in recent seasons and a remarkable turnaround from the 4-13 mark the Rocks had in their last pre-Cotter season.

Their 11 wins this season include a 19-17 victory over Saline in which Cotter scored 18 of her team’s 19 goals.

That marked the second time Cotter has scored 18 goals in a game (she also did so against Saline last year) as she entered this season with four of the top five single-game scoring performances in the Michigan High School Athletic Association record books.

“One of the things I tell everybody is you look at Mileena as a lacrosse player, she's an even better person,” Rocks coach Damien Butler said. “She's not big-headed. She's all about the team. She loves her teammates. Her teammates love her.”

Cotter is simultaneously working to lift Salem to new heights and to inspire a new generation of lacrosse players that anything is possible, regardless of where you are from.

“If you just have a goal and you try and reach that goal, it doesn't matter how fast you're moving, how slow you're moving,” Cotter said. “If you keep pushing toward that goal every single day, then you don't know what's possible.”


Cotter was probably supposed to play hockey. Or compete in gymnastics.

Her mom, Lisa, was a gymnast and runs TumbleBunnies, which offers a variety of children’s programs, including gymnastics. But gymnastics didn’t quite click for Mileena.

Her older brothers, Jack and Paul, are top-notch hockey players, with Paul getting his name carved onto a Stanley Cup with the Las Vegas Golden Knights. But the ice never felt like home for Mileena.

Cotter was around the fifth grade when she discovered lacrosse through her nanny, Katie Kirchoff, who played at Concordia University.

“I started here with a local club team, and I just kind of took off with it because I wanted to give my brothers a run for their money at something,” Cotter said. “I had to figure something out.”

Her mom was surprised.

She didn’t know much about lacrosse and hadn’t anticipated adding a new sport to the tapestry of gymnastics and hockey woven throughout their home and community.

But she recognized the fire in her daughter’s eyes.

“As a parent, when you see your child have a fire for something, it's so inspiring,” Cotter said. “It's so exciting because I mean that's what we all want to do. We all want to feel that energy and that life and to go for something and try and be your best at something. I mean, what a gift that is to find something that you love, and so that's kind of how I felt: ‘Okay, well now we got to figure it out.’”

Figuring it out meant more than finding a team. It meant more than weekly practices. 

They wanted to chase lacrosse the way Cotter athletes have always chased their goals.

“My two older brothers play hockey, and so here it's like the hotbed for hockey, so we're used to that four or five days a week of practicing, and so, when I started lacrosse, it was kind of, ‘Where's all the stuff?’” Cotter said. “There are no private lessons. There aren’t lots of teams out here. So, I had to kind of get creative and find some good coaching.

“We always saw the East Coast girls, and we just knew that I had to work to be 20 percent better because it was unknown. We always felt like I was kind of behind.”

The Cotter family.
Mileena poses with her family. Her brother, Paul (far right), plays for the NHL's Las Vegas Golden Knights.
Cotter Family


Greg Courter still gives out the Mileena Cotter Conditioning Award.

Courter is one of the coaches the Cotter family found, driving nearly an hour from Canton to Monarch Lacrosse in Bloomfield Hills to help young the future high school record-setter raise her game.

Courter doesn’t give out the Mileena Cotter Conditioning Award to the fastest kid. He gives it to whoever finishes last on a consistent basis in sprints, like Cotter did when she first ran for Courter.

“I don't think she'd ever run a sprint in her life at that point,” Courter said. “And she finished probably 70 yards behind the next-to-last finisher.”

Courter said he still laughs about that award with Cotter, but beyond being an amusing story, it’s a testament to Cotter’s remarkable work ethic, because Cotter is now well-known for her fitness.

Indeed, that was one of the strengths she brought to the table a few years later when Lisa and Mileena Cotter drove several hours to try out for the elite SkyWalkers club in Maryland.

“She's a terrific two-way player, and if you're going to be a two-way middie, you've got to be in shape,” Courter said. “And she realized that early on and really embraced the fitness side of it and now is really a well-conditioned athlete.”

That stamina has paired with something Courter noticed from the start, something that compelled the coach to add an eighth grader to his high school team.

“I think part of it is a fearlessness,” Courter said. “That whistle blows, and it's draw time. She just locks in and is 100 percent committed to helping her team, and it's a special quality. Not every kid has that.”

That attitude was a big reason that a Michigan girl made a Maryland club team, ultimately spending a couple months every summer living with her mom in a Hilton Home2 Suites in Owings Mills.

“I went out there full speed, trying as hard as I could,” Cotter said. “I think I shocked a few people because of that, and I think that's why a lot of coaches, especially the SkyWalkers coaches, but even college coaches, notice the way that I play because I think I play like I have something to prove and want to show everybody what a hard worker I am.”

And yet Cotter never left the Salem Rocks behind, always returning from Maryland to play for her hometown team.

“She came in committed,” Butler said. “We talked about, ‘How did you end up here of all places to play? Why here?’ She was like she just wants to go to high school. She just wanted to have fun in high school.”

That whistle blows, and it's draw time. She just locks in and is 100 percent committed to helping her team, and it's a special quality. Not every kid has that.

Greg Courter, one of Cotter's first lacrosse coaches


Mileena Cotter went to a University of Michigan game soon after she started playing lacrosse, around sixth grade, and was blown away by the talent. A little later, she saw a University of Maryland game while traveling with her club team and was similarly struck by the players she watched.

Many players might have questioned whether that level was possible for them and wondered if they ought to reset their goals. Not Cotter.

“It just [felt] very far away at the time, and I don't think I ever believed that I couldn't reach it, but I was always so curious of, ‘How am I going to get there?’” Cotter said. “And I think that curiosity really drove me to, I wanted to figure it out: ‘How can I get to be that good if these girls are that good? What do I have to do to get to that level?’”

Next year, Cotter will be on that level.

She already has reached remarkable heights, from committing to Syracuse to making it to the USA Lacrosse National Team Development Program (NTDP) twice. Per Cotter, it was an honor and a learning experience.

“It's tough,” Cotter said. “It's hard on your body. It challenges you mentally, and I love the challenge.”

Normally, Cotter said, you try to take advantage of weaker players on the opposing team. At the NTDP level, those weaknesses are much harder to find.

“It was tough because everyone's got it down,” Cotter said. “Everyone's prepared, and you really just have to show what you got and take advantage of those opportunities against these incredible girls.”

Cotter didn’t back down from that challenge.

Nor is she backing down from the challenge of joining one of the country’s preeminent lacrosse programs. Syracuse will play in the final four next weekend in Cary, N.C.

“I wanted to go somewhere where people love lacrosse just as much as I do,” Cotter said. “I think the class that [we] have, we all love lacrosse, and so when you have people that have the same goal as you, it makes you want to work even harder.”