International Soccer Players Find Home at Mount Mercy

Mount Mercy’s men’s soccer coach immigrated from the former Yugoslavia in 1995 in the midst of a civil war that erupted after the country’s first free elections. More than 12 years later, Hadzic is mentoring four student-athletes from his homeland who are adapting to life in Cedar Rapids.

Drago Ceranic ’10, from Belgrade, Serbia, and Zlatko Tomic ’10, Petar Triva ’11, and Ivan Bogdan ’11 from Split, Croatia, grew up on opposite sides of the conflict that left a quarter million people dead and millions of refugees. The war was most intense in Serbia and Croatia, which didn’t bode well for the initial face-to-face meeting between Ceranic and Tomic, the first to arrive in the States. In fact, even Hadzic was apprehensive about their introduction. “I wasn’t sure how they would react,” Hadzic says.

Despite their origins, Ceranic, 24, and Tomic, 21, hit it off with the help of their favorite pastime — soccer. They met in person at Hadzic’s home in the summer of 2006, grabbed a soccer ball, and kicked it around for hours at Iowa City High School. “We discussed the war and what happened in the past,” says Ceranic, who has a Bosnian mother and Serbian father. “But we weren’t raised with prejudice and didn’t let it come between us,” added Tomic, whose parents are also from different parts of the former Yugoslavia. His mother is Bosnian, his father Croatian.

To show their solidarity, the two made t-shirts for their first game as teammates at Mount Mercy. “The shirts represented the fact that we had overcome the stereotypes of war and that we are all one team,” Tomic says. It was an emotional moment for Hadzic when he saw the shirts during warmups. “I was overwhelmed,” says the coach, “and very proud of how these two young men reacted to each other.”

Ceranic and Tomic had successful freshman seasons on and off the pitch. Both earned all-conference honors and shared the team’s Newcomer of the Year award, then helped recruit two more Croatians to Mount Mercy. Triva, 19, and Bogdan, 20, grew up playing club soccer with Tomic, who introduced Hadzic to his childhood friends in the summer of 2007.

“Knowing Zlatko definitely helped us feel at ease,” says Triva, an all-conference performer last fall. “Ivan and I trusted Zlatko, Drago, and Amir, plus we knew there have been successful international students who graduated from Mount Mercy. They are great role models for us.”

While Triva and Bogdan already had a connection to the College before they got to Mount Mercy, Ceranic and Tomic did not. After years of youth soccer, they faced a similar dilemma — continue playing soccer or pursue a college degree? In Europe, professional soccer is a year-round commitment that requires extensive travel, making it nearly impossible to attain a degree at the same time. “It’s hard to play soccer and stay in school back home,” Ceranic says. “So I wanted to look at options in America.”

In 2005, Ceranic began contacting college coaches in the United States. One e-mail went to Hadzic, who, unknown to Ceranic, was from the same country. “When I responded to Drago’s e-mail in our native language, he was shocked,” says Hadzic. The two continued to correspond and eventually Ceranic decided Mount Mercy was the right place for him — but not until his mom talked to Hadzic. “Talking to Amir was very reassuring,” Ceranic says.

Tomic took a slightly different route to America. His cousin played professional soccer with Hadzic in Sarajevo in the early 1990s and introduced the two after learning of Tomic’s interest in playing collegiate soccer in the United States. After only a few conversations the quiet Tomic was sold on Mount Mercy. So were his parents, who had talked with Hadzic and knew the parents of Davor Bijelic, a former soccer standout and 1999 graduate of Mount Mercy.

Ceranic, Tomic, Triva, and Bogdan have faced obstacles on and off the field while transitioning to a new way of life, but all four agree that those challenges pale in comparison to the opportunities Mount Mercy has to offer. “The people here are great,” says Ceranic, who married former Mustang soccer player Andrea Hahn this winter. “It’s a welcoming place with unlimited possibilities.”

“It’s all about experience,” says Bogdan, who, like Ceranic, had parents who were reluctant at first to send their son so far from home. “Mount Mercy is a great place to take advantage of academic and cultural opportunities.”

The benefits go both ways, though. “We’ve grown a lot since we’ve been here,” says Tomic, “but I also think we’ve given something back to the college.” Ceranic, Tomic, Triva, and Bogdan bring different perspectives to the soccer field and the classroom, sharing their culture with the campus community.

Some students have been motivated to travel overseas. John Hauskins, a junior on the men’s soccer team, spent a month in Croatia last summer with Tomic. Others have changed the way they communicate. “After hanging out with these four guys, students have picked up parts of our language and surprise me with it when I meet them in the hallway or cafeteria,” Hadzic says.