Maine West soccer players focus on new season after hazing scandal
BY JON SEIDEL Staff Reporter September 2, 2013 4:34PM
Maine West soccer players huddle before their opening match against Fremd High School in a home game in Des Plaines on Aug. 26. | Tim Boyle~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 4, 2013 6:05AM
Their coach called it Maine West’s “new chapter.”
One of their teammates called it “a whole new book.”
Either way, their story began last month, when the Maine West High School boys’ varsity soccer team kicked off its fall season — hoping to put a year of troubling headlines about hazing behind them.
Much went well at its Aug. 26 opening match against Fremd High School. Fans cheered as the Maine West Warriors scored with about two minutes left to avoid defeat and end the game in a 1-1 tie.
But word that a fifth Maine West athlete had stepped forward hours earlier to claim a sexual assault by his soccer teammates marred that first game. Players also have said that the hazing claims became fodder for taunts from opposing teams during summer games.
And finally, though he’s been criminally charged and lost his job over the allegations, a few team members still harbor clear respect for former varsity soccer coach Michael Divincenzo.
“He was our coach,” said senior Jonathan Schmitz. “That’s who we’re playing for still.”
Maine Township High School District 207 let the Chicago Sun-Times talk to Schmitz and fellow senior Miguel Lopez, as well as their new coach Al Matan, about the team’s return to the field under these difficult circumstances.
Matan temporarily took over coaching duties late last year after multiple soccer players came forward to say they had been sexually assaulted by their teammates in a hazing ritual.
Divincenzo, the coach at the time of the alleged hazing, was fired and charged with misdemeanor battery, hazing and failure to report abuse. Prosecutors allege he knew about the initiations.
He has denied guilt, but he has been sued, along with the former freshman coach and the school’s principal in a pair of lawsuits.
When the scandal first broke, prosecutors charged six unnamed teens with misdemeanors. They’ve since dropped the charges, and Matan said the players involved have “fulfilled their consequences.” He said they had an opportunity to play this year.
And he said the team’s ready to move on.
“The kids do want to do their best,” he said.
Schmitz and Lopez, both 17, were not allowed by the district to answer questions about the hazing for legal reasons. But they said the ordeal has been tough on the team and motivation has been difficult to come by. Lopez said he’s propelled by hopes the team will go deep into the playoffs.
But Schmitz said he’s still motivated by the former coach he knew as “Divo.”
“He built up a dynasty,” Schmitz said.
The difficult task of earning these boys’ trust has fallen to Matan, who coached soccer at Maine West in the 1990s — even coaching Divincenzo, who graduated from the school in 1994. District 207 spokesman Dave Beery said it’s natural for the team to go through an adjustment period now that Matan has the job permanently.
“Al Matan brings extensive soccer-coaching experience to the program,” Beery said. “And we know that his dedication to preparing his team to do their best both on and off the field will resonate with them.”
A presentation on the team’s website says bullying and hazing won’t be tolerated. And Matan calls himself the coach who “does not want my players to taunt others.”
Matan called a meeting at the end of the last school year to find out how many students wanted to play soccer this fall. Long after the hazing story broke, the gathering drew about 40 students. Key players returned too, he said, and he took that as a sign that they trust the new coaching staff.
“They came back strong,” Matan said.
But while Matan referred to the team’s new season as its “new chapter,” Schmitz called it “a whole new book.” He said they’re building the school’s soccer program up all over again.
And it began with that first game against Fremd High School. Maine West didn’t walk away the winner, but it felt that way after they scored the late goal to tie the game.
Their fans cheered. And the team celebrated, embracing on the field.
“We’re a family,” Lopez said. “We’re always going to stick together.”