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Friends, former players defend Maine West coach at center of hazing probe

A young Michael Divincenzo teaches kids how shoot basketball.
Phofrom his senior yearbook.

A young Michael Divincenzo teaches kids how to shoot a basketball. Photo from his senior yearbook.

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Updated: January 10, 2013 6:20AM

Before the big game, he dared them to be great.

People aren’t chosen to be great, they choose to be that way, Michael Divincenzo told the Maine West High School soccer team before it clinched its first victory against New Trier High School in nearly 30 years.

In the 2006 yearbook entry that memorialized that game and in other entries, Divincenzo is portrayed as the classic inspirational coach. The man students call “Divo” can be seen in one yearbook photo getting soaked with Gatorade dumped by his players. In another photo, the team joins hands after his 50th varsity victory.

One year he calls the team a family.

“We respected him because he was a leader, but when it was just practice, fun drills, goofing around he made us feel at the same level,” said former Maine West varsity soccer player Wojtek Rogoz. “He was a close friend — a mentor, really. I looked up to him.”

The image of a beloved coach and teacher has been overshadowed, though, by disturbing allegations that Divincenzo and fellow coach Emilio Rodriguez knew older players on the soccer team were attacking younger ones. It’s been called “hazing.” If true, it might also amount to sexual assault.

The coaches remain silent. Divincenzo has declined to speak when reached by the Chicago Sun-Times. Rodriguez, who has been named in a lawsuit along with Divincenzo, also refused to speak to a reporter.

Neither coach is allowed on school grounds, district officials have said. They’ve been relieved of their duties, and the district said it will hire an independent investigator.

A Facebook page created by former students has offered the most visible support the coaches have received since the scandal erupted.

And former varsity soccer players told the Sun-Times no hazing occurred during their tenure on the team.

“That definitely didn’t happen with me,” said Chris Vana, who was coached by Divincenzo for four years and graduated in 2004. “It was not a tradition that dates back to me.”

Now the sex crimes division of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office has begun a “top-to-bottom” review of the case. Six teens were charged with misdemeanors before that review even began.

Rogoz said as a freshman, the older players “gave me a hard time” but the worst thing that happened was that he had to carry equipment bags and pick up soccer balls.

The former players said the outspoken, energetic and passionate “Divo” was known for his focus on respect, discipline and teamwork.

“He would say how he made all these great friendships while playing soccer and that was his goal for us,” said Vana, 27.

His strategy for creating a successful team was simple, Rogoz said.

“He tried to teach us to be one,” said the 26-year-old, who graduated from Maine West in 2005. “Not always did we have the most skilled players ... he would always teach us that we would each bring out the best in [each other].”

Before each game, the team would meet and visualize the game they would play.

“Going through the game in your head beforehand so that you’re prepared when it actually comes time to play,” Vana said.

Divincenzo was hired on to the school in 2001 and since he began coaching, the boys soccer team has won two conference titles — in 2009 and 2011. And they have been regional champs in 2001, 2004, 2007, 2009 and 2010 and sectional champs in 2010. He holds the record at the school for most career wins.

“He built the program up from pretty mediocre to being really good,” Vana said, pointing out that the school competes against powerhouses New Trier and Maine South.

The coach, also a physical education teacher, has taught an outdoor education class and he also has sponsored clubs, including the Adventurer’s Club and the PE club.

Few friends and family members have spoken publicly about Divincenzo, but his former father-in-law, Wayne Witt, insisted the embattled coach is a “fine young man” who comes from a great family.

Divincenzo and Witt’s daughter, Tiffany, were married for a short time and divorced in 2011, citing irreconcilable differences, according to court records.

Witt said, “I was proud to call him my son-in-law. I still think of him as a great friend.”

Divincenzo, a 2001 graduate of Northeastern Illinois University, didn’t arrive at Maine West High School as a coach. He was a student there and played on the baseball and soccer teams before graduating in 1994.

When the varsity soccer squad secured a victory his senior year over previously undefeated Evanston, yearbook editors quoted an enthusiastic Divincenzo as saying, “it was like winning the world championship.”

“Everybody on the team put everything they had into it and we won,” he said.

Dan De Rusha, a former Maine West soccer player who graduated from the school in 1995, said the soccer team back then would get together for “team unity nights.”

There was no drinking, no drugs and no sexual activity, he said.

“It was just a group of guys getting together, showing team spirit, team unity and strengthening that relationship for the team,” De Rusha said. But he said no initiations or rituals were required to join the team back then. And based on his experiences with Divincenzo — the time they spent together in high school — he does not believe the coach would condone “any sexual hazing in any instance.”

But the recently filed lawsuit claims Divincenzo and Rodriguez sanctioned a hazing culture that led to the sexual assault of multiple soccer players and a baseball player.

Tony Romanucci, the Chicago attorney who filed the lawsuit, claims multiple teens were sodomized this year with sticks and fingers by older players.

Another former soccer player who has joined in the lawsuit said he was attacked twice in a similar fashion in 2007.

“I was embarrassed,” the man, identified as John Doe C in the lawsuit, told the Sun-Times exclusively, explaining why he didn’t come forward earlier. “I didn’t want anybody to know. I felt ashamed. Strongly ashamed.”

Finally, a baseball player who has joined the lawsuit said his pants were pulled down in the school locker room in spring 2008.

Police reports indicate Divincenzo knew about some of the hazing incidents and allegedly watched on as one such incident occurred in July.

The former players said they have a hard time believing the allegations.

Rogoz said he can’t imagine that Divincenzo, whose life has revolved around Maine West since he was a teen, would want to “tarnish the reputation” of the school.

Contributing: Dan Rozek

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