It is soccer season all year long for Nino Kovacevic, director of player and coach development for the Highland District Soccer Association.
The highland district runs from the Canso Causeway to the New Brunswick border so Kovacevic has been accumulating lots of kilometres since taking the position in August, 2015. When not on the road, he works out of Stellarton’s William M. Sobey Indoor Soccer Complex.
“It is a great job for somebody with a passion for soccer,” he acknowledged.
Kovacevic’s passion for the game ignited when he was invited to a Halifax Dunbrack Soccer club tryout. A native of Yugoslavia, now Croatia, he was an 11-year-old new immigrant, struggling to learn English and kicking a ball around with a new friend.
“My friend and I were both in ESL (English Second Language). It turned out there were actually four ESL guys on the team. Not speaking the language was a bit daunting but I understood the coach, who happened to be Greek, wanted me to come back. I was pretty excited about that.”
He remembers being totally unable to do a pushup but understanding the coach liked the way he moved his feet and received a pass.
“Besides not knowing much English, I was naturally quiet so I had to talk with my feet. “
Kovacevic played with Dunbrack all through his school years and went on to be a starter with University of Kings College Varsity Blue Devils before joining Dalhousie Tigers.
“Soccer has been good to me,” he said, neglecting to mention he was an Atlantic Canada Athletic Association All Star.
At an early age, Kovacevic became a dedicated student of the game.
“When I learned about rivalries between teams I wanted to know how they developed. I was interested in the history and geography of the teams and the backgrounds of the players.”
Soccer introduced him to many of his best friends.
“The social side of it has been fantastic. I’ve met amazing people through soccer. It was great growing up and in university it was a good way to get away from the work, relax and express yourself but it is the friendships that mean the most.”
Studying international development, business and human relations management at university, Kovacevic did not foresee his soccer background leading to employment.
“Everything I studied applies to soccer development, I just did not see it at the time. Since taking this job I’ve learned a lot about soccer communities in our region. There are a lot of volunteers in various communities who are working hard.”
The overriding goal is always to give players a better experience, he said.
“If kids are learning and having fun, they stay with the sport. An attainable goal for a soccer kid in the region is to get a scholarship to university. A lot of parents are on board for something that will help pay the cost of education.”
That is not to suggest young children should pick soccer as their sport and play it exclusively, he added.
“It is good to play a variety of sports even though that creates challenges for programming. Skills learned in one sport transfer to other sports. We have to be able to work with other sports organizations to come up with whatever the kids will get the greatest benefit from.”
Developing coaches is another key to advancing sports, he added, noting there are guidelines and standards laid down by Soccer Nova Scotia.
“We know we need to mentor and invest in our coaches if we are going to retain them. Right now we don’t have a lot of certified coaches in some areas so that is a goal.”
Kovacevic appreciates the diversity of the highland region.
“I’m interested in the different histories and identities of the various towns and areas within the region. I like to know how Antigonish Celtics, CC Riders or North Nova developed.”
Kovacevic has also been struck by the openness of soccer people within the region.
“People are very welcoming, very helpful. I’ve been to a lot of new places and rural Nova Scotia, in summer, is about as close to heaven as you can get.”
About 20 per cent of Kovacevic’s time is spent as an assistant coach to St. Francis Xavier University’s varsity teams.
“Training camp starts in August and I’m busy with X through the fall which works out really well because that coincides with the school soccer season. I still play futsal with the X players in the gym but from now until August I am more in the communities.”
Winter programming is well underway in areas with indoor facilities but by early May Kovacevic expects to have teams on the field across the region.
“It is all about giving kids the best possible program, finding the ways to do that and developing communities.”
Rosalie MacEachern is a Stellarton resident and freelance writer who seeks out people who work behind the scenes on hobbies or jobs that they love the most. If you have someone you think she should profile in an upcoming article, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org