For UNC Asheville soccer players, the competition starts long before game day. Five o’clock wake-ups are a prelude to 6 a.m. weight training and 7 a.m. practices designed to move players beyond their comfort zones. The new women’s soccer coach, Michelle Demko, and new men’s soccer coach, Matt Kern, wouldn’t have it any other way.
In her first season at UNC Asheville, Demko wants her team playing an up-tempo, high-pressure game reflective of how she played as a professional center mid-fielder. Demko holds scrimmages on a very small field to force her players to make quick decisions, transitions and shots. At times, Demko jumps into the game and battles her players for possession, unleashing powerful drives that challenge her goalies to make diving stops.
Men’s coach Matt Kern has his players racing head-to-head in sprints. He wants teammates to overcome their natural tendency to go easy on each other.
“It’s OK to beat your roommate,” says Kern, who wants his players to push themselves and each other to greater heights. Kern also stresses conditioning so his squad can press the opposing team all over the field.
For both Kern and Demko, the stress on competing comes from within.
Demko says, “I’m just wired like that. I can’t turn the competitive nature off and on.”
Kern agrees: “No question, coaches get into it because we love competition, and self-imposed competition is stronger than any imposed from the outside.”
But both coaches have an equally strong passion for teaching and fostering the growth of student athletes. Kern committed to coaching as a career soon after his graduation from Hartwick College, where he was a starter for teams that twice made it to the NCAA Final Four. He has coached college soccer for almost two decades and was twice named Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference Coach-of-the-Year.
What are Kern’s priorities as a coach? “Degrees, first and foremost, then helping the players enjoy the athletic experience and develop into great people.”
Demko began preparation for coaching at the start of her freshman year. “At University of Maryland, I took notes on every training session starting with the very first practice,” she said. Inspired by seeing Brazilian legend Pelé as young girl,
Demko worked her way up to the top professional ranks, starting on a championship team in Germany and playing two seasons for the Philadelphia Charge. Demko then coached four seasons at North Carolina State University and served as an assistant coach at Nebraska before coming to UNC Asheville.
The competitive drive that fired Demko’s playing career still burns strong but is now channeled through others. “It’s about the players,” says Demko. “I want them to experience the success and feel a positive result from all the hard work, all the 5 a.m. wake-ups.” Demko is also anxious to see her players develop inner strength and independence that will help them in off-the-field endeavors.
To see how both Bulldog soccer teams are faring and to get a schedule of upcoming games, visit the UNC Asheville Athletics Web site.