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Growing up in a good era, a good time, leads to good teams, good memories

Laurentian Voyageurs' men's soccer coach Carlo Castrechino has walked in the shoes of the athletes that he now mentors.

He was that prized recruit, trying to adjust to life at the next level.

He just did it in much different shoes, with a much different soccer background, in much different times.

Of course, few are the times that resemble what we are all dealing with in terms of a daily realities of 2020. But even the pre-pandemic Voyageur prospect of recent years might have had trouble relating to the developmental process that Castrechino, and those of his era, enjoyed in Sudbury.

"Competitive is the key word," stressed Castrochino, the middle of three children, equally torn between hockey and soccer in his pre-teen years. "I think the first I remember of playing soccer, I was seven years old. But I always remember, from Sudbury Minor Soccer right through to the men's league, it was always competitive."

"There were a lot more teams, there were a lot more coaches, guys that had come from Europe and played in the local men's league in the fifties and sixties, and they passed on that knowledge to the young kids."

And given that he keeps tabs on the landscape of youth soccer in Sudbury these days, Castrechino is concerned, concerned that there isn't that same pathway to success that he could follow with ease en route to competing with what was then one of the top university teams in the country.

"I just don't see the numbers, today, or the quality, although there are a few kids that can make it," he said. "I just worry that they don't play at a high enough level in town to get that training they need to keep moving up."

"I was fortunate to grow up in a good era, a good time."

The beginning of his story isn't terribly dissimilar to the portrait being painted, in summers prior to 2020, at fields strewn right across the region, in settings that are likely a touch more recreational than what Castrechino recalls.

"When I was younger, when I first started playing until I was maybe 13 or 14, I had some skill and certainly worked on it, but a lot of it was athleticism," he said. "I could run faster than most kids. For me, initially, I could just kick the ball, run by people, and put the ball in the net."

That story has been heard before, pretty much every summer. Yet not every young prodigee will excel. Thankfully, the 51 year-old graduate of Sudbury Secondary School was blessed with the self-motivation to understand the gift that he was granted.

"I used to go to the high-school, by myself, in the summer, just with a mesh and some balls, and just work on my game," he said. "I was a striker, I was a goal scorer, and that's all I would do, is shoot, shoot and shoot."

And while there would be some early mentoring with his future Voyageur coach, Greg Zorbas, as well as the likes of Rob Gallo and Joey Presta, there is no denying that the logical next step was a Sudbury soccer template that had churned out talent for a few decades already.

"I was 15, turning 16, when I arrived in the men's league," said Castrechino. "The Sudbury men's league really got me ready for university, it made my transition a lot easier. When you start weeding out to just the players who really want to play, the guys in the men's league, everyone there can play, everyone is athletic, so I really had to work on my skill, my positioning, becoming much more of a student of the game."

Still, it would take seven or eight games for the incoming freshman to begin making his mark at Laurentian in 1989, as Castrechino struggled with a lack of awareness that is common with rookies who ascend to the university ranks.

"I was horrible in my first training camp," he laughed. "If Greg did not know me from having trained me through high-school, I am sure I would have been cut. I wasn't prepared. I still had to get to another level."

That he would, breaking through offensively before the end of season one, netting the game-winning goal, in penalty kicks, in a huge provincial semi-final win over the University of Toronto, as the Voyageurs made regular visits to nationals during his time as a student-athlete. Unfortunately, an ACL injury late in his sophomore campaign reduced the effectiveness of the local product.

Thankfully, it also allowed Castrechino to open a different door entirely.

"Being injured kind of got me ready to step away as a player, to move to coaching, even if it was a little easier than I wanted. It was hard on me, as a player, not being able to play the way I was able to play when I was 100% healthy."

Working alongside Zorbas, the face of Laurentian soccer through much of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Castrechino was able to watch and learn, witness to the administrative requirements of varsity coaching. "It was really beneficial for me, even when I took over as head coach (fall of 1999)," he said.

"Greg was still at the school, teaching. I was probably in his office more than I was at work."

A Geography/Geology major who has enjoyed a lengthy tenure with the Ministry of Energy, Northern Development and Mines, Castrechino still fell victim to the more restrictive nature of coaching, one that limits their involvement to the wrong side of the sidelines. "As a coach, you're certainly not helpless - you can still do some things," he said.

"But you can't go out on the field to do things. That was the hardest part for me. As a player, you have a certain amount of control. As a coach, there is more that is out of your hands."

Spoiled somewhat early on, Castrechino would see his team reach nationals in just his second year at the helm (2000), a memorable journey, even to this day. "We did not have a lot of numbers, but those players that we had, the heart that they had, it was special," he said. "I've had a few teams, more recently, that have mirrored that one."

"I've really had a lot of good teams, and a lot of good memories."

Northern Ontario AAA Hockey League