Lacrosse is the fastest-growing sport in America, and its recent growth at the Carrollton Boosters playground has brought a national award to its coach and founder, Doug Mills. That the sport has been embraced by youth is seen in the recent merger of an experienced high school team with the recreation league team.

It was a late winter evening and practice was ending. Ricardo Quinonez Jr., a senior on the lacrosse team at Walter L. Cohen High School, asked his coach if he could talk to the team.

Mills said he still gets goosebumps thinking about it, that moment he knew his high school lacrosse team was going to do something special this season. In January, Mills had received a call from Cohen High lacrosse coach Mike Turi. Without the previous year’s seniors, Cohen’s team was one player short. Mills jumped at the opportunity to roll the Cohen students into his high school lacrosse team at Carrollton’s rec sports program.

“Three or four weeks ago, I thought I’d never play lacrosse again,” Quinonez said to his team. “Now, a month later, I’m getting ready to play a game with my new team. I’m coming to play tomorrow with all my heart and soul. You guys do the same.”

“They all came together and kind of looked at each other,” Mills remembers. “One of the kids from Cohen said, ‘Hey, just a bunch of dudes who want to play lacrosse.’ That’s all that was ever said.”

The next day, the newly merged team arrived in Mandeville to face their opponents.

“We looked like the Bad News Bears,” Mills said, “Some of our players had uniforms, but they didn’t match. We looked like a bunch of misfits.”

But his gut feeling, inspired by Quinonez’s words the night before, was validated as the team won the faceoff and then its first goal. The team won the match 10-0.

The success of lacrosse is a phenomenon Mills attributes to two dynamics in the New Orleans area.

“One, they absolutely positively love this game,” Mills said. “They come, they learn it and they love it.”

The second dynamic, Mills said, is a number of athletes looking to get away from football, boosting lacrosse’s popularity.

“As the younger kids look to pick a school,” Mills said, “they tell me their parents don’t want them to play high school football, they’re not good enough to make the high school basketball or baseball team, so what are they going to play? Lacrosse gives kids an opportunity to play.”

Mills got involved in the sport after his oldest son was forced to quit football while recovering from mononucleosis. His son played lacrosse his junior and senior years, made all-state, went to the state championship and lost, but had a great experience, Mills said.

In 2010, Mills went to the board at Carrollton and proposed a lacrosse program. “They said, ‘That’s great, but you’ve got to do everything.’ ”

So Mills did. Having never played himself, he recruited coaches who played high school or college lacrosse and focused on the fundamentals. The program started with 17 players (one of whom had experience) in brackets ranging from under-11, under-13, under-15, and high school. By the third year, he had more than 40 youths in the program, and the high school lacrosse team “started to get some seasoning to them” as kids with experience moved up. Last year, there were 80 boys and a girls team was added.

This year, with more than 100 boys, 20 girls and 15 volunteer coaches in the overall program, Mills was honored at the U.S. Lacrosse National Convention in Baltimore with the Excellence in Growing the Game Award, given to an individual who tirelessly develops lacrosse in a geographic area.

“Nobody in the Deep South has ever won this award,” Mills said. “We’re so glad that Louisiana and lacrosse were mentioned on the national stage. After five years of blood, sweat and tears, it was great. But I could name a dozen people who deserve it more than I do, because so many people are involved in this program.”

Jackie Smart, the owner of Southern Lacrosse, was one of the parents who nominated Mills for the award. She said her son’s lacrosse experience was transformed under Mills’ leadership and vision for the team.

“Everyone — coaches, parents and players — was clear the goal was to learn, share excitement and to allow the boys to have fun,” Smart said. Smart’s son, Michael, is now captain of his Jesuit High School lacrosse team.

This summer will mark Mills’ 22nd year involved with Carrollton. His youngest son, who started playing at Carrollton, now plays for his high school team.

“Carrollton’s been around for 60 years, and do you know how many people we’ve sent pro?” Mills asked. “I can think of two: Eli and Peyton (Manning). I tell parents, ‘If your mindset is that your kids will play pro, you’re totally missing the point.’ ”

The point, Mills said, is that playing sports teaches kids the values of discipline, teamwork, respect and perseverance.

His high school lacrosse team took that lesson one step further and developed relationships across socioeconomic lines.

“So many of those inner-city relationships are on the periphery, in passing,” Mills said. “I’m so glad we merged those teams. I loved seeing these kids, whose paths would’ve otherwise never crossed, come together and play.”

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