Deni Ismailovic is starting his high school coaching career during a global pandemic in the state’s toughest district.
But it’s not the most difficult situation he’s ever been in – not by a long shot.
Ismailovic, who was announced as Summit’s new girls soccer coach Friday, grew up in Sarajevo during the Bosnian War.
The Siege of Sarajevo was the longest of a capital city in the history of modern warfare, lasting from 1992-96.
“Growing up as a child or even a teenager, it was very difficult for everybody,” Ismailovic said. “I was separated from my family at times for several years. I lost some friends, I lost some family.
“Any war, it’s just tough and usually no one comes out ahead afterwards.”
Ismailovic was 10 years old when the civil war began in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“When the war started, we would have to go in basements and different areas,” Ismailovic said. “We were in the middle of it. There were snipers all over. My dad was down there during the war fighting.”
Ismailovic and his mom sought refuge in Slovenia, Turkey and Denmark before he came to the U.S. to play soccer at Lambuth.
He said the hardships during those days made him tougher mentally and physically, qualities that will serve him well in his new job.
“You get to (experience) a lot of different cultures and meet a lot of different people, so hopefully I’ve been able to use that to my advantage in a lot of different aspects,” Ismailovic said.
Coach Deni, as he prefers to be called, coached at the club level the past 16 years, where he has won eight Division 1 state championships, four regional league titles and one national league championship.
He coached for Nashville United Soccer Academy in Brentwood the last three seasons.
“We live, actually, two minutes away from Summit High School, so we’ve been living in the Thompson’s Station-Spring Hill area for almost 11, 12 years,” Ismailovic said. “I’ve just never really got a chance to get into the high school side of (soccer) even though most of the kids that play in District (12-AAA) I’ve coached (in club soccer).”
Summit went 6-10-1 overall and 0-5 in the district last season.
Ismailovic, 38, hopes his success at the club level will help him turn Summit into a strong program.
“I know things that usually work on the girls side because I’ve coached girls for a long time in this age group,” Ismailovic said. “We have a big job before us to do because unfortunately the program has not been great the last three, four years, but there’s a lot of potential there.”
Ismailovic replaces Clay Watson, who coached the Lady Spartans the last five years.
“My style is an offensive style,” Ismailovic said. “It’s very possession style: short passing game, everything is fast-paced, not a lot of dribbling and then, of course, as soon as you lose the ball try to win it back in five, six seconds. It’s a very attacking style.”
He was introduced to the players and parents Thursday night on a Zoom video conference.
“Everybody, obviously, is struggling in their own way,” Ismailovic said of the pandemic. “I know people are losing jobs, so it’s most important for people to stay healthy. It’s difficult not really knowing when we can start, when will the tryouts be, but we have time to plan.”
District 12-AAA is arguably the state’s toughest league. Ravenwood met Brentwood in the state final, with the Lady Raptors winning 3-2 in November.
Ismailovic is a patrol sergeant with the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department, where he’s worked for the last 16 years.
Things got busy for the police force after a tornado hit Nashville.
“In early March we were working 12-hour shifts for about 10, 11 days with no days off,” Ismailovic said. “It was mainly to provide security and high visibility for the community for the people who lost their homes or had them damaged, all the volunteers and the businesses.”
Ismailovic was at Nissan Stadium when the Nashville Soccer Club made its Major League Soccer debut in front of a crowd of 59,069 on Feb. 29, two days before the tornado.
“It was an incredible atmosphere,” Ismailovic said.
Summit assistant principal Greg Glass is excited about the future of the program under Ismailovic.
“He is widely respected in the club soccer community and after he shared his vision for our program in a meeting with Mrs. (Sarah) Lamb, Summit Executive Principal, Athletic Director Chad Kirby and myself, we felt he was the best choice for our girls soccer program,” Glass said in an email.