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This story originally appeared in Onward: John Carroll Alumni Magazine, which was mailed in early November. Check your mailbox over the next few weeks to get your copy.

Read the full version of Onward

In 2005, the Blue Streak men’s soccer team reached the NCAA playoffs, their third berth in five years. When their head coaching position came open after the season, the search began for a leader to continue that tradition.

Enter Hector Marinaro. He was a household name in northeast Ohio, having led the NPSL’s Cleveland Crunch to three professional indoor soccer championships over his 19-year career. Marinaro left the game as the league’s all-time leading scorer, earning six MVP trophies.

“I had just retired, and I’d done some player-coaching with the Crunch,” Marinaro remembers. “I had offers, maybe go to the MLS as an assistant, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Then this job presented itself and it really intrigued me.”

It was a local legend, taking over a program with tradition. What’s not to love? In 2006, anticipation was high…and the Blue Streaks won five games. It was their worst mark since 1988.

It was a rude awakening. They graduated a huge senior class that was very successful. I took over and hired Dejan (Mladenovic) right away. We started 0-7-2, and won our last five games to get into the OAC playoffs. I was really proud of that effort.

Since that year, Marinaro has built a program to be reckoned with in the OAC. His Blue Streaks have never won less than nine games since his first season, and have played for the OAC title eight times. They were the 2014 and 2016 regular-season champions, and brought home tournament titles in penalty kicks at Shula Stadium in 2016 and 2018. Marinaro’s squads have made the NCAA Tournament four times: 2007, 2016, 2017, and 2018. 

“People ask me what the highlight of my career is,” Marinaro says. “It’s winning the OAC tournament title in 2016 at home with my son. My wife jokes it’s the happiest she’s ever seen me. To beat our nemesis, on our turf, in front of a spectacular crowd, and finally get the weight off our backs is something I’ll never forget.” His son Jesse, a former All-American, is now a graduate assistant on the men’s soccer staff.

Marinaro credits the partnership he’s built with Mladenovic as a major force behind the program’s success. “Early on it was hard to recruit,” he remembers. “Dejan was a 21-year-old senior and I had no previous experience. It was on the job training for us both. We took a few years to figure out the process, and it all changed when we made Dejan our director of recruiting. We look at every single player together, and have built a detailed program for how we recruit.”

Marinaro learned early on how the Division III athlete differs from his own experience.

It was a difficult transition because I’m somebody that’s never happy unless we’re holding that trophy at the end of the year. I always wanted to do more as a professional because that’s the way I was wired. Coming to the D-III level, it took some adjustment. I had to step back from the professional mindset.

His recruiting pitch following those early years is emblematic of that shift. “What John Carroll does for you is more than I can do for you in four years,” Marinaro says. “I’ll teach you life lessons through soccer, but this place as a whole sets you up for whatever comes next.”

Marinaro credits the recent success to two factors: talent and infrastructure. When he and Mladenovic looked at their roster in year one, they had 40-50 players ready to compete for spots. Their solution? A reserve team, one that would breed competition in practice and give younger players valuable experience. They were the first in the conference to do it, and now boast a 10-11 game yearly schedule against D-II opponents.

“Our goal is always to win the national championship,” Marinaro says. “We’ve been to the round of 32. We were a few bounces away from beating Penn State-Behrend last year. You need some of those lucky draws, lucky bounces. But now the goal is to go from there. Between our recruiting and reserve team development, our program is capable of challenging for things that have never been done before at John Carroll.”

As he reflects on what’s next, Marinaro is awed by the impact the program has had on student-athletes, and for his own family.

The alumni I’ve met are willing to do anything to help our players. It is overwhelming how much love there is for JCU among our alumni. What it’s done for my family … it is a tremendous place and I love it here. It became our family, and way more than I ever imagined.

Editor's Note: Marinaro's team wrapped up a league-record 12th Ohio Athletic Conference regular season championship on Wednesday, Nov. 1.