Carroll-Crunch Connection Embraces Men’s Soccer Tradition
Editors Note: This article was originally published by Logan Potosky on Wednesday, Feb. 15, at 7:25 p.m. on jcusports.com.
CLEVELAND, Ohio – When many people think of the John Carroll Blue Streaks in professional sports, they likely think of Blue Streaks in the NFL. From the legendary Don Shula '51, to linebacker London Fletcher '98, the current Las Vegas Raiders' General Manager-Head Coach tandem of Dave Ziegler '00, '07G and Josh McDaniels '99, John Carroll is well-represented in professional football.
But Men of Carroll in professional sports span more than just football. A Blue Streak connection has been years in the making in the realm of professional soccer with a local team: the Cleveland Crunch.
The Cleveland Crunch are a professional indoor soccer team, and are currently a member of the Major Arena Soccer League 2. First established in 1989, the Crunch first played professionally in Cleveland for 16 seasons. The team played its first three seasons in the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL), before moving to the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL) from 1992 until 2001.
The team won three NPSL Championships, in 1994, 1996, and 1999. It would play in the MISL once again in 2001, but would rebrand as the Cleveland Force from 2002 until 2005, before folding for nearly 16 years.
However, the team returned in March of 2021, winning a league championship in its first season back. This season, the team has picked up right where it left off, as the Crunch are off to a perfect 7-0 start. Their next match is this Saturday night, February 19, at 7 pm. It will be the first leg of a weekend road doubleheader against the Chicago Mustangs.
The Blue Streaks-Crunch connection began with the signing of legendary forward Hector Marinaro in 1989, the team's inaugural season. This would be one of the greatest moves in the franchise's history, as in 13 seasons with the team, he would rack up 1,065 goals, 606 assists, 12 All-Star selections, six NPSL MVPs, and three NPSL championships in 490 appearances.
As a result, he was inducted into both the Greater Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame in 2005 and National Indoor Soccer Hall of Fame in 2019, while having the NPSL MVP Award renamed the Marinaro Trophy. He is considered by many as one of the greatest indoor soccer players of all time.
Early in his Crunch career, Marinaro was joined by his eventual predecessor as Blue Streaks head coach, Ali Kazemaini. Kazemaini played just one season for the Crunch, tallying a total of 38 appearances and two goals in the 1990-91 season.
Near the end of his indoor soccer career, in 1992, Kazemaini would become the John Carroll Men's Soccer head coach, remaining there through 2005. Unique circumstances led to him accepting the job.
"I was at a golf outing, and somebody introduced me to Tony DeCarlo ['66]," Kazemaini said. "It was an opportunity for me, it was the right time to meet Tony DeCarlo, and that's how I ended up coming to John Carroll."
During his tenure, Kazemaini guided the Blue Streaks to a 177-76-13 record, seven OAC Regular Season Championships, four OAC Tournament Championships, and four NCAA Tournament appearances, including the team's first trip to the Sweet 16 in 2003. He also was a three-time OAC Coach of the Year. As a result, he was inducted into the John Carroll Athletics Hall of Fame in 2018.
After his time at JCU, Kazemaini hoped that the program would continue to succeed.
"I wanted to make sure the program was in good hands," Kazemaini said.
Marinaro and Kazemaini developed a friendship even before the Cleveland Crunch, during their playing days with the Cleveland Force in the 1980s. Thanks in part to Kazemaini, Marinaro was able to become John Carroll's next head coach.
"[He] had a big role in me getting hired there [at JCU]," Marinaro said. "Ali Kazemaini was the one who called Laurie Massa, the former athletic director, and recommended me for the job. I met with Laurie and was hired."
Marinaro would go on to coach the John Carroll Men's Soccer program from 2006 until 2021, finishing as the winningest coach in the program's history with a 185-82-30 record. The four-time Ohio Athletic Conference Coach of the Year won five OAC Regular Season and OAC Tournament Championships, while also leading the Blue Streaks to five NCAA Tournament appearances.
Currently, Kazemaini remains in Northeast Ohio, serving as the Director of Youth Soccer and the Cleveland Soccer Academy at Lost Nation Sports Park in Willoughby. Marinaro, however, has moved down South, and serves as the head coach for IMG Academy's U19 Men's International Team in Bradenton, Florida.
Today, the Cleveland Crunch are led by second-season Head Coach Louis Kastelic '09, who both played and coached at JCU. As a player, Kastelic played 77 games, starting 67 of them, totaling 60 points (16 goals, 28 assists) and six game-winning goals during his time with the Blue and Gold. His 28 career assists rank fourth in program history. Kastelic was a two-time Second Team All-OAC selection for the Blue Streaks.
Kastelic would later join Marinaro and current John Carroll Men's Soccer Head Coach Dejan Mladenovic '06 on their coaching staff as an assistant from 2011 through 2016. But his ties to the Crunch go back to when he was a child, as his father was the equipment manager for the club.
"I was like a ball boy and an equipment manager's assistant," Kastelic said. "I used to go to practices and kick the ball at midnight after games."
Being around the club for a while led to a familiar face inspiring him to play, and eventually coach, soccer.
"My soccer experience and why I even started playing soccer isn't because of outdoor [soccer], it's because of Hector," Kastelic said.
A member of Kastelic's Crunch coaching staff is first-season Assistant Coach Alex Bernot '08, who also played collegiately for the Blue Streaks. Bernot finished his career with 75 appearances (69 starts), and ranks top-10 in school history in points (98), goals (37), assists (24), and game-winning goals (11). He was also named 2007 OAC Forward of the Year, as well as a three-time All-OAC selection (First Team in 2007, two-time Honorable Mention).
But the Carroll-Crunch connections don't stop there. One of the main fixtures of the Cleveland Crunch's roster is defender Bobi Cancar '15, who played college soccer with the Blue and Gold as well. Cancar, who transferred to John Carroll after two years at Cuyahoga Community College, was a two-time All-OAC selection for the Blue Streaks, garnering Second Team honors in 2012 and First Team honors in 2013. He is currently in his second season with the Crunch.
But his connection with the club began at an early age.
"I remember going to Crunch games," Cancar said. "I would play on the field after games."
For Cancar, being able to play for the club he grew up watching has become a full-circle moment for him.
"Just being able to put on that jersey to represent them means a lot, it really does," Cancar said.
Another Man of Carroll with the club is Liam McIntosh '19, who currently serves as Goalkeepers Coach for the John Carroll Men's Soccer program, as well as a goalkeeper for the Cleveland Crunch. This is his second season with the club.
The Mentor native finished his Blue Streak playing career as a four-time All-OAC selection (two-time First Team, two-time Second Team) and two-time OAC Goalkeeper of the Year. His 75 games played and started are the most in JCU history for a goalkeeper, and he currently ranks top-three in program history in saves (251), wins (53, most), shutouts (29.1, T-most), and minutes played (6,855).
Next, Ben Hyrzsko '21, the reigning OAC Forward of the Year, signed with the team this season. The Cleveland State and University of Cincinnati transfer finished his Blue and Gold career as a two-time First-Team All-OAC selection, while totaling 34 career points (14 goals, 6 assists), including five game-winning goals this past season. His OAC Forward of the Year Award was the first for a John Carroll Men's Soccer player since his current coach, Alex Bernot '08, won it in 2007.
Another former Blue Streak goalkeeper playing for the Crunch is Connor Robinson, who just finished his senior season with John Carroll. He completed his tenure with the Blue and Gold appearing in 45 games, and ranking top-10 in school history in GK games played, saves (99), goals allowed average (0.48, second-fewest), and save percentage (.818). Robinson was also a three-time OAC Player of the Week and All-OAC selection (Second Team in Fall 2021, two-time Honorable Mention). This season is his first with the Crunch.
Finally, a current Blue Streak, Aidan Bozak, is in his first season with the Crunch as well. The sophomore midfielder from Bay Village has made 18 appearances in his John Carroll career so far, including 12 this past season.
Considering all of the past and present ties between John Carroll Men's Soccer and the Cleveland Crunch, a strong relationship between these two clubs is alive and well. Since the Crunch have returned, the Blue Streaks have become an immediate pipeline for potential talent.
"On the coaching front, it's my first call," Kastelic said. "I think we'd be silly not to utilize the Carroll connection, because that team is so good year-in and year-out."
But this call between Kastelic and Mladenovic would likely involve more than just soccer, as the two former teammates and coaching partners still remain close friends.
"At any point in time, Dejan and I will pick up the phone and call each other," Kastelic said. "It would just be like we're best friends right back at Carroll at that desk in the office, just shooting the breeze or picking up on things. It's something that will never end."
Both Bernot and Cancar are still close friends with MIadenovic. Cancar was the best man in Mladenovic's wedding and will be the godfather to his newborn son, Luka. Mladenovic was also a primary reason why Cancar chose to transfer to John Carroll. And he believes that the current Blue Streak Men's Soccer coach is the reason that today's Blue Streak-Crunch alliance is working well.
"I think the credit goes to Dejan," Cancar said. "Dejan's recruiting this talent, and then we're able to see it."
While the current talent with the Crunch are in touch with John Carroll, the past connections still keep their tabs on both clubs, wishing them nothing but success.
"I pretty much watch every [Crunch] game that I can on YouTube. I watch every single JCU soccer game," Marinaro said. "Even though I'm down in Florida, I still follow both programs all the time."
It has meant a lot to both Kazemaini and Marinaro to see their former players do very well at the professional level, for a team that they both used to play for.
"For me, it's always been, 'Give back to Cleveland,'" Kazemaini said. "So, why not achieve success and have local people give the local kids a chance?"
Marinaro echoed Kazemaini's thoughts.
"I couldn't be happier for them. They were all part of my program," Marinaro said. "It's great to see these kids living out their dreams, whether it's coaching or playing."
All in all, the Carroll-Crunch connection remains strong, and doesn't look like it will be fading away any time soon. Those with JCU ties and are currently involved with the Crunch understand that they may serve as an inspiration for the next generation of Carroll-Crunch talent.
"I think it's a testament to the university," Bernot said. "If that convinces one person to come to the John Carroll soccer program, because they saw a JCU player's name on the Crunch, that's a pretty cool feather to put in your cap."