Stokes’ dream becomes reality

By Adam Fenster, SPORTS EDITOR
On January 14, 2014

 

A few weeks ago, the Friday before winter break, Demi Stokes was likely the most popular player on the USF women’s soccer team.

The junior forward who had played multiple positions for the Bulls this season, woke up to a flood of texts from her teammates, congratulating her.

“What’s everyone talking about?” Stokes asked herself.

She didn’t want to jinx it.

Stokes had a feeling she knew what they were congratulating her on, but she wanted to be sure. After checking her emails, she found one in particular. Stokes thought she misread because she was tired, so she looked it over once more.

“That’s when it clicked,” she said.

The email she read invited her to join the women’s senior national team for England — the highest level of soccer one can play in the country where Stokes was born, a native to South Shields, about 12 miles east of Newcastle.

“It’s going to be different. It is always playing at different levels,” Stokes said. “Obviously this is the top level. I think the game will be a lot faster, the pace will be faster and I’m looking forward to being in that type of environment. This is where it really counts.”

The national spotlight isn’t new to Stokes, who has played with England on the U-19 level twice, helping them win the European Championship in 2009. She also played with England on a U-20 team that was featured in the 2010 World Cup.

Her most recent showing on the national level was when she earned a gold medal with Great Britain in the World University Games on the U-23 team.

Though she’s played for her national team on different levels before, her dream was to play at the highest level since she was young.

“I wanted to play for my country by the time I was 21, it was was always a goal of mine,” she said. “I actually wrote it down. It’s good to know that I’m moving in the
right direction.”

Now, at age 22, that written dream of hers has become reality.

But that’s not to say it was easy. In fact, girls in her situation are often told they would never make it this far.

“National team coaches tell them that if they leave England, or if you leave wherever the country may be, you’re out of this national team set up,” USF associate head coach Chris Brown, who also coaches the Guyana Senior Women’s National team, said.

While Stokes was off winning with England’s U-19 and U-20 team, before the 2011 season, she began to entertain the idea of attending school in the U.S.

After weeks and weeks spent on scouting talent, Brown and Adam Sayers, a former staff member of USF women’s soccer and current head coach at East Tennessee State, found Stokes and heard of
her interests.

Though both parties had interest in one another, Stokes as well as the U.S faced a stigma, Brown said.

“The national team coaches don’t want the players to go to the U.S. because their thought process is you’re not going to get better,” he said. “We take a lot of pride in making those players better, because we’ve had a lot of international players come through the program. We want Demi to go back and show really well.”

Once Brown and Sayers lined up the interview with Stokes and her mother in England, that’s when they called in their “closer” — USF coach Denise Schilte-Brown whose charisma convinced Stokes to take what Brown called a “leap of faith.”

Brown said a question always asked to recruits before coming in to play is ‘Do you have aspirations of playing with your full national team?’

“When we get that ‘yes,’ which is what we’re looking for, then our response is ‘We want to help you reach those goals,’” Brown said.

For Stokes it was no different. Once asked the question, she said ‘yes’ without a shadow of a doubt.

“It’s kind of funny with Demi, because you have this girl that says she wants to play with the full national team and yet she’s leaving, knowing that if she leaves there’s a good chance that she’ll be out of the program,” Brown said. “She had to have a lot of character and faith to say ‘This is what’s best for my life right now and I may have made it harder, but I’m still going to do it.’”

Since taking that leap, Stokes showed early on that when she answered Denise and Chris’ question, she meant it.

During her first season in 2011, the 5-foot-4 forward tied the team-lead in goals with four and led the team with four assists. Stokes only had an assist with three goals in the following season, but in 2013 she led the team with five assists and tied for third in goals with six.

But her effort doesn’t stop in the offseason. Even after reading her email weeks ago, Stokes said she hasn’t changed her routine a bit — a routine that had her training twice, sometimes thrice each day.

This is something that USF junior forward Sarah Miller said she admires Stokes for and wishes she could do herself.

“We always make fun of her, but it’s like I wish I could do something like that,” Miller said. “She just wants to be fit and be good. This is how she was brought up. She says her eating habits are how she preforms so well. She always encourages us too. She actually takes time out to go shopping with us to get the right kind of stuff. She made eating schedules for some of the girls on the team. Being a nutritionist could be her future occupation.”

Stokes said she just wanted to stay the course leading up to her departure to England.

“I just wanted to keep doing what I was doing, I didn’t really change anything,” she said. “I just remember that I’m there for a reason, I did something they liked.”

Brown said Stokes’ competitive mentality comes natural to her. It’s helped to create a culture on a team that coaches can only talk about and preach. With Stokes, she leads by example.

Miller, who joined USF when Stokes did, said Stokes has become more than a lead-by-example player over the years. The typically humble Stokes has used her words to motivate
as well.

“She’s so self-motivated, she doesn’t need anyone, but other girls aren’t like that,” Miller said. “To have her voice and be like, ‘We’re going to fight through it’ and that kind of thing, the hard work is going to overcome whatever we’re struggling with that day.”

Brown said she couldn’t agree more with Miller, saying every team has certain types of players.

“Her work ethic was just unbelievable,” Brown said. “You have that handful of hard workers that are going to do what you tell them, then you got that group that you have to drag along with you because they’re not accustomed to working super hard but still do it because they want to be part of the team. Then you got that rare player that does everything you ask without you having to ask and then some.”

That rare player, Brown said, is Stokes, who will find familiarity once in England.

While Stokes said she is nervous, there are about 10 players on England’s roster that she’s played with during her stints with the U-19, U-20 and U-23 teams. Even head coach Mark Sampson wanted Stokes to play for his club team in England back before she had even went to USF.

“I’ll be nervous going in, but I think it’ll be a good nervous,” she said. “I’ve prepared myself the best I can and I feel fit.”

The South Shields native joins five other players on USF’s current roster that have been brought in to play for their full national teams.

Stokes recently began her series of flights to England last week to begin training camp which started Sunday and goes through to Thursday, leading up to a friendly against Norway on Friday. Stokes will return to the states after the friendly.

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