In her first meeting as head coach of the Durango High School girls soccer team, the first question Melissa Halonen received from a player was asked out of necessity, not curiosity. It was straightforward, simple and direct: “Are you going to stay?”
Halonen responded with a confident “yes.”
The Durango girls soccer program is on its fourth coach in four seasons, and even after reaching the Colorado High School Activities Association’s Class 4A playoffs all four seasons, the Demons have been unable to retain their head coach since Dalon Parker left for Multnomah University after six seasons leading the Demons.
Halonen is determined to revamp the team’s culture, and from there, she believes the play on the field will take care of itself.
“My No. 1 priority is creating a positive culture and community, especially in the first year,” Halonen said. “It’s not just the technical part of soccer that matters to me, but connecting with them on a more human level and being aware of why we play this game. The love of sports has always been a lifelong thing, and I want to carry that over. I want to bring the joy back into the program because I know the girls care, they really do. A huge part of why I got into coaching is because of the relationships I’ve had and the people I’ve met, and I want to pass that on to them.”
Halonen teaches special education at Riverview Elementary School and has lived in Durango for four years. She played Division I soccer at Eastern Carolina University and at Western Michigan University. She went on to earn her master’s degree in exercise and sports studies at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, and was an assistant coach for the women’s soccer team. Halonen coached the boys team at High Tech High School in San Diego before moving to Durango. Since she’s lived in Durango, Halonen has coached Durango Youth Soccer Association teams and now a few of her former players are on DHS.
For Durango School District 9-R Athletic Director Ryan Knorr, Halonen’s experience across all levels of the sport stood out, and he said his top priority was bringing in a coach that would develop a strong culture and have a long-term vision.
“That was huge for the girls on the committee, her sense of consistency and her vision for three or four years down the line was huge,” Knorr said. “Finding someone who really wanted to put the roots down and really wants to see the program grow. Because she’s done it at every level from youth to college. She’s a great bridge, and I hope for more collaboration with the club community, because if they’re successful, I believe the high school teams will be successful, as well.”
Even though the Demons will have to replace nine players from last year’s squad that reached the first round of the CHSAA Class 4A state playoffs, there is a strong group of freshmen coming in, plus DHS will return a fast midfield and the majority of its defense that gave up 22 goals last season.
“We have some really good freshmen on the roster, and I want it to be comfortable enough to compete with our older players, and our older players are looking at that as a way to get better, not as a threat,” Halonen said. “I believe we have great talent all the way up from freshmen to seniors and look forward to the competition between all of them.”
In order to create healthy competition, Halonen again stressed unity both on and off the field.
“We have to create a culture where we are thinking a bit bigger than ourselves and it’s ‘we before me,’” Halonen said. “I want to create an environment where we can challenge one another but also support one another. In the games, I want to have a team where effort doesn’t need to be coached; they’re playing their hardest every minute they are on the field and they are playing for each other.”
Halonen said she will likely bring back a 4-3-3 formation, which the previous coach Jonathan Berzins used last year to great success, as DHS scored 33 goals.
With the Demons in desperate need of stability, Halonen believes she can deliver it.
“I think the hardest part watching all of this for me was how it impacted the girls,” Halonen said. “In the past, I’ve heard about the program from players or parents and the inconsistency around it was really tough on the whole soccer community. This is a big soccer town, and I just hope that I can live up to some of the expectations and wanting to build a culture around consistency, and they’re all proud to be a part of this team.”