Mill Creek's Nick Kozlowski — Photo Illustration: Brendan Sullivan/Nicole Puckett
HOSCHTON -- Like many high school lacrosse players in the state whose careers have blossomed since the sport became recognized by the Georgia High School Association in the last decade, Nick Kozlowski's background comes from a different sport.
Yet, the game is hardly foreign to the Mill Creek senior midfielder.
After all, Kozlowski has family ties to Canada, where lacrosse is very popular. And he has experience in another sport popular in Canada.
"My dad is from Montreal, and he loves hockey," Kozlowski said. "And my grandparents are from Canada. They always say that hockey is Canada's favorite sport, but lacrosse is its pastime."
Of course, having grown up in Miami, Kozlowski took up the roller variety of hockey, rather than the traditional ice version.
Still, with as many similarities as hockey shares with lacrosse, the transition from one to the other once he reached eighth grade was natural.
And the way he has played since joining the Mill Creek program from its humble beginnings as a club program and its transition to varsity status, he has proven himself to be a natural.
"He was pretty polished (from the beginning) coming from a hockey background," Mill Creek coach Bo Adams said. "He's one of those kids who never puts the stick down. He's always working on his fundamentals, and in lacrosse, fundamentals are important because it's a skill game."
Those skills have served Kozlowski and the Hawks well, with 82 goals, 31 assists and 183 groundballs over the past two All-County seasons at Mill Creek.
And he agrees with Adams that his hockey background has made him feel comfortable with lacrosse since the first day he picked up a stick while visiting with friend and teammate Alec Bussink four years ago.
"Every time I'd go over to his house, before I'd get there, (Bussink would) be throwing a lacrosse ball against a wall," Kozlowski recalled. "It looked interesting, so I tried it. From then on, we'd throw around.
"I made a quick transition because it is the same game (as hockey). It's very similar to me. I kind of prefer getting groundballs because it's just like hockey. ... The physicality's the same. One of the things I learned in hockey is stay away from the boards. It's the same in lacrosse. You want to stay away from the out-of-bounds lines."
The skills Kozlowski has brought from hockey to lacrosse has also made him one of the county's more versatile players throughout his high school career.
While his first and natural position is the long-stick midfielder, Adams says his stick-handling and shooting skills make him an asset and the more offensive-oriented traditional midfield position.
"It's amazing when you get a kid like Nick who's as accurate with both the long stick and the shorty," Adams said. "He plays some long-stick mid for us, but he's mainly a shorty because that's where we need him the most. He's that good. He's that versatile.
"And he can switch (from one to the other) just like that. He'll come to the box and swap sticks. He did that a couple of times last year. It's hard, and a lot of kids can't adapt like that."
Kozlowski's skill level and versatility have not only made him one of Gwinnett's, and the state's, top players, they have made him a cornerstone for a Mill Creek program that has risen quickly in its relatively short time in the varsity ranks.
And he hopes to accomplish the same thing on the college level, as he has committed to play for Mercer University's brand-new program, which just began its inaugural season as the first Division I college program in Georgia.
"I wouldn't have dreamed it, but I'm so happy I did," Kozlowski said of his commitment to join the Bears in the fall. "When I started playing seriously, I was like, 'I want to play in college.' It feels great to be able to represent the state."
Adams has no doubt Kozlowski will be a success on the college level, mainly because his work ethic is as high in quality as his skill level.
"Nick's just a great kid," Adams said. "He takes coaching very well, which is tough when you can do a lot of things well and freelance like he can. ... He's a giver to the team, and with Mercer being a new program, he's going to to excel, not only on the field, but also in getting other kids to want to come to Mercer."