Coming off a disastrous 2022 season, the Stony Brook men’s soccer team is looking for some star power to help it bounce back in the Coastal Athletic Association (CAA) this year. Luckily for the program, it appears to have found a big-time player in defender Jon Jelercic.
The sophomore defender is coming off a successful freshman season in which he stood out at the right-back position for the Seawolves. Last year, he scored a goal and two assists for his team while also being a disruptive force on the backline. His meteoric rise to stardom caught the eyes of the conference’s coaches, as they selected him for the 2022 All-CAA Rookie Team.
On the pitch, it was a great first year in America for Jelercic, who is playing approximately 4,200 miles from his hometown of Trbovlje, Slovenia. In a town known for its coal mining with a population of roughly 14,000 people, soccer is a staple of the local culture. With Stadion Rudar — the town’s soccer stadium — in the center of the village, it is hard to escape the influence of the sport.
Despite this, Jelercic’s family was not drawn to soccer, but rather basketball. Both his grandfather and uncle played professional basketball in Slovenia, and his immediate family was passionate about it too.
However, Jelercic took after his elementary school friends, who were much more into soccer — which he still refers to as football.
“My friends and my classmates, they started playing football, and I signed up for a club to play,” Jeleric said in an interview with The Statesman. “I played basketball besides football, but when I got older [football] became more serious. It was a tough moment, but I chose football and I’m happy about that.”
For the furthering of his career, Jelercic made the right choice. The decision has led him down the path of both collegiate and professional soccer. It also forced him to mature at a young age, having to learn how to fend for himself long before others.
It took Jelercic until he was 15 years old to start taking soccer seriously. After playing for fun on a local club team for five years, he joined the Slovenian under-15 national team to kick off his competitive career. His performance on the team earned him an academy offer from Nogometni klub (NK) Maribor, a top-division team in the Slovenian soccer league.
Jelercic’s new club was based in Maribor, Slovenia, which is over an hour north of Trbovlje. Once he accepted the offer from NK Maribor, he had to move closer to the team to make fulfilling his aspirations in soccer easier.
However, reducing his commute to Maribor forced Jelercic into adulthood. He moved into an apartment and began living on his own, proving to be a challenge for the then-15-year-old.
“That was the moment when I had to grow up fast,” Jelercic said.
Living on his own did not affect his performance on the pitch. He played well for Maribor for the first two years of his high school career and caught the attention of NK Olimpija Ljubljana, one of the best academies in Slovenia. Ljubljana offered him a roster spot and he accepted, having to move another two hours away.
Jelercic continued to chase the dream of being a professional soccer player at Ljubljana and stuck with the team for his final two years of high school. During this time, he continued to play on the Slovenian national team, eventually joining the under-17 and under-19 teams as he got closer to graduation.
After finishing high school, Jelercic took a gap year to focus on soccer. During that year, Jelercic caught the eye of a professional club. The sporting director of Football Club (FC) Drava Ptuj — a third-tier team in the Slovenian National League — attended some of his academy games and reached out for Jelercic to join the team. The director saw something in 19-year-old Jelercic and offered him a six-month senior contract with the team.
Jelercic signed the contract and officially became a professional footballer. However, he learned quickly that making the jump from the amateur level to the professional one is not easy.
“It was quite a tough moment,” Jelercic said. “I needed some time to adapt. In the academy, you play the guys around your age. In [professional] clubs, you’re playing against 35-year-old men. It was much more physical, less tactical.”
Jelercic appeared in 12 matches for FC Drava Ptuj, scoring one goal and contributing three assists through his short tenure. Though Jelercic had an opportunity to continue moving up the ladder and playing professionally in Slovenia, he began to think more about life further down the road.
Playing alongside older men whose careers were on the downswing, Jelercic realized that his soccer career is finite, and that he needed something to fall back on. In order to get a second career lined up, he decided that he wanted to go to college; however, European schools do not sponsor their own soccer clubs.
In order for Jelercic to get both an education and a chance to play soccer, he was going to have to move somewhere that offers both simultaneously.
“I decided to come to the United States just because I’m aware of how important school is besides football for my future career,” Jelercic said. “You can only play until you’re 35 years old, then you have nothing.”
With this in mind, Jelercic spent the back end of his gap year preparing for the big move. He signed with Luka Voncina (LV) Prospects, which is a Slovenian agency that specializes in helping athletes move to the United States to earn NCAA opportunities. After LV Prospects posted game film of Jelercic, many schools reached out. Institutions such as the University of Kansas, Iona College and Rider University all offered him a scholarship. However, Jelercic was more intrigued by what Stony Brook had to offer.
At the end of July 2022, Jelercic went to the United States with his father to visit Stony Brook. In his first-ever trip to America, head coach Ryan Anatol and his staff made Jelercic feel right at home, and he agreed to become a Seawolf.
The start of Jelercic’s NCAA soccer career did not go well. He struggled significantly to adapt to the different playstyle in America, as well as to the physicality of American players. Things got worse during the second preseason game of the year when an injury sidelined him for the first three weeks of the regular season. He eventually made his debut with Stony Brook on Sept. 13 against Merrimack, playing 17 minutes off the bench in a 3-0 loss.
He only played nine minutes in the next game, giving him just 26 minutes and zero starts through the team’s first seven matches of the season. Jelercic was frustrated by his lack of playing time.
“I was a little bit confused about it, but I kept working hard,” Jelercic said. “It was tough for me in the beginning, coming from a different part of the world, far from home without any minutes. I had to change my style — I [had to] run a lot and be more aggressive.”
Anatol gave Jelercic a chance in Stony Brook’s following match, inserting him into the starting lineup against Yale. Though the Seawolves lost, Jelercic caused a few turnovers and generated a shot on goal, solidifying himself a spot in the starting lineup. He remained there for the rest of the season, starting the final eight matches.
Despite the lows of last season’s 5-11 record and ninth-place finish, Jelercic is undeterred and ready to make a statement in the upcoming season. With the experience from his professional stint and his NCAA debut season put together, Jelercic has the chance to be the focal point of Stony Brook’s backline.
“We had a good preseason, we trained really hard and I think we are going to be really good,” Jelercic said. “It’s going to be better than last year and I’m pretty excited.”
Jelercic and his Stony Brook teammates will be playing with a chip on their shoulder all season, as they were picked to finish last in the 2023 CAA men’s soccer preseason poll.
Because of the rankings, Jelercic is ready to be a part of something great this year.
“We are really motivated for this season,” Jelercic said. “We were ranked at the bottom of the table, but that is just one more thing that can motivate us to prove everyone wrong.”
Alex Streinger contributed reporting.