The Last Line of Defense By Dustin Hall
redbird magazine | august 2011
The junior goalkeeper has had an unusual journey to Illinois State, but also one of the most interesting.
or many, going away to college marks a milestone in a person’s life. It often signifies an era of independence and living away from friends and family for more than just a summer camp. However, for Illinois State goalkeeper Mara Kremenovic, moving to Normal, Ill., was simply another step on her journey to becoming a NCAA Division I soccer player in the United States. Kremenovic first learned the game as a toddler in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada, where it is rumored that she kicked a ball before taking her first steps. Unlike many young soccer players who dream of scoring goals, Mara decided to put herself in front of the target and learn the trade of goalkeeping from her father, Mike. The young Kremenovic excelled as a youth player and earned herself a spot on Team Ontario, an honor that would force her to leave her hometown of Thunder Bay and relocate 18 hours away in Toronto to advance her playing career. “I was 13, just about to turn 14, when I moved [from Thunder Bay to Toronto] and it was a big change that was tough on my whole family,” recalls Kremenovic. “It was a big decision and I didn’t have my mom to support me through it while I was away, but she understood that in order for me to reach my goal of playing in the United States on a scholarship, I had to be in Toronto to train.” While training in Toronto, Mara lived with host families who provided her with support while she pursued a playing career in the United States and faced life experiences that she credits with
making the move to Illinois and transition to Division I soccer much easier. “Being away from your family at such a young age is hard, but it makes you grow up quick. It made the transition from leaving Canada to come here easier, because I was used to being independent and having to do things on my own,” Kremenovic said, before describing her living situations as a teenager. “From when I was 13 to 16, I lived with a host family, boarded in with them and adopted their lifestyle. Luckily it was very similar to the way that I was brought up. From 16 to 18, I actually lived by myself and in those two years, I was doing the grocery shopping and paying the bills by myself. Having to keep on top of all of that, along with school and throwing soccer in there as well, it makes you grow up quick and I am a better and stronger person for it.” Kremenovic continued to make sacrifices in order to better her chances at earning a Division I scholarship and transitioned from Team Ontario into Canada’s national training program, where she continued to be a full-time high school student, in addition to honing her skills on the pitch. “During the training program, I would train four to six times a week,” Kremenovic said. “I would leave right after school, around 3:15 p.m., get in the car and drive to the training center, which was about 45 minutes from where I lived. Because of the travel, I would have to eat dinner in the car and when I got there, I would train for about two hours. The training center there
was great, I had some great coaches there and the training quality was so much better, simply because I got to do it repetitively four or five times a week, whereas when I was in Thunder Bay I would only get to go once a month and train for a weekend before I had to go back to school.” While in the training program, Kremenovic would make yet another life-changing decision, after finding inspiration from a teammate who played for the Jamaican national soccer team. She too wanted to take her talents overseas to play the game she loved and took advantage of her father’s Serbian citizenship to earn a tryout with the Serbian national team, after contacting the head coach through e-mail. How did Mara’s family react to yet another move? “They were shocked!” she said with a wide smile. “It kind of came out of nowhere to them and they weren’t sure how to feel about it, but any decisions that I make, as long as I have reasons and it is something I am really passionate about, they will support me through it.” The then 18-year old Kremenovic booked her plane ticket and headed across the Atlantic for what would be a two-week stay in Serbia. While in Europe, she had to overcome language barriers to communicate not only with her Serbian teammates, but also with her head coach. She was able to carry on basic conversation, but her lack of knowledge about the Serbian language presented limitations. Fortunately, she had a few teammates who were able to translate and found a roommate who was fluent in English. 85
“During meetings and during practice, my teammates would have to translate to me, so I knew what was going on. It was kind of hard, because my coach would say it in Serbian and I would have to look to one of the other goalkeepers and ask what we were supposed to do,” Kremenovic said. “It was interesting because I learned soccer in a different way. Not only did I have to listen and try to pay attention to what he was saying, but I could tell a lot by his movements and little demonstrations that he gave. It was a completely different style. The Europeans are so quick with their footwork and things like that.” After her tryout, Mara earned herself a roster spot and quickly had to adjust to not only the differences in the game of soccer in Serbia, but also the culture as a whole. She did her best to explain the variation she experienced in the values and lifestyle, before sharing a story about her first meal as a member of the team. “The first thing I did when I got there was go to dinner with the team,” she recalled. “I got my first plate and I thought that was my meal, but they took it away and gave me another plate. I ate a little more [of the second plate] and then they took that plate and gave me another plate. I had to learn to pace myself and learned that you get four plates for every meal.” As a member of the Serbian team, Kremenovic shared the same pitch with some of the best women’s soccer players in the world, while playing matches in Hungary and Brazil. The welltraveled goalkeeper had worn several uniforms in her journey across Canada, but putting on the colors of a nation was not only a brand new experience, but a different feeling entirely.
“The first time I put a Serbian jersey on…,” she paused for a moment. “It really kicked in. You have to take a step back and remember what you’re representing. It is no longer just a game; it is the pride of a country and everything that goes along with it. It is a very humbling experience. “I still have trouble believing the fact that I got the chance [to represent Serbia]. It is amazing to put on that jersey. I can’t even describe it. I just had a glow on me and I don’t think I took the smile off my face the entire time that jersey was on. At the end of the trip, I didn’t want to give it back and I didn’t want to take it off,” she said with a laugh. Even with all of the experiences that she has encountered in her past, Kremenovic continues to look forward and prepare for the future. She is currently in the process of becoming a citizen of Serbia and says that overcoming the language barriers to communicate with her Serbian defenders has made her a more effective goalkeeper. Mara also keeps in touch with a few of her international teammates on a weekly basis and continues to teach herself the Serbian language. When asked about her upcoming plans with the Serbian team, her focus quickly shifted to an opportunity that will allow her to play on a much larger stage in 2013. “I am looking into going to the 2013 Euro Cup qualifiers this September,” Kremenovic said. “[Serbia] has drawn England, the Netherlands, Slovenia and Croatia in our qualifying group. We have a tough group with some great teams and it is something I am looking forward to possibly doing this fall.” The UEFA European Women’s Championship, also known as the “European Cup” or “Euro Cup”, is held every four years and is the main competition between national teams in Europe. If Kremenovic is able to represent Serbia at the Euro Cup qualifier, she would miss a pair of regular-season contests during Illinois State’s 2011 campaign. Seven years after leaving Thunder Bay, Kremenovic’s sacrifices finally led to the fulfillment of her ultimate goal: earning a Division I scholarship in the United States. During her freshman season at Cape Breton University, Mara was discovered
by the Illinois State coaching staff and offered a scholarship to play for the Redbirds. Kremenovic has made the most of her opportunity and made an immediate impact for Illinois State in 2010. After earning the starting nod in goal during the preseason, Mara played every minute between the pipes for the Redbirds, recording four shutouts and posting a 1.18 goals against average in 2010.
Not only does Kremenovic have big plans when it comes to her playing career, she also has lofty career aspirations. After finishing her degree in pre-med at Illinois State, Mara has her eyes set on playing professional soccer overseas, before returning to her home country of Canada to enroll in medical school. Although her journey to central Illinois had a few curves and bumps along the way, Mara will never regret her decision and would not have changed a thing. She also offered a piece of advice for others who have aspirations of earning a Division I scholarship, no matter where they may begin the quest. “If it is something that you really want to do, make sure that you love it and that you are doing it for you,” Kremenovic said. “You are going to have to sacrifice things along the way, but the payoff that you get from the journey is something that you are not going to find anywhere else. Put everything you have into it every single day and the rewards will come.” Now that she has achieved her ultimate GOAL of playing Division I soccer in the United States, the one she has set for the 2011 season seems much simpler - prevent others from scoring them.