By Alan Burke
MARBLEHEAD — Marblehead soccer coach Steve Ingemi is flatly denying a former player's charge that he engaged in hazing during practices.
"Hazing absolutely, positively did not happen," Ingemi told The Salem News in a brief phone message.
Former Marblehead High soccer captain Jacob Rainer has charged that a technique dubbed "branding" was used as a rite of passage for new members of the team. According to a letter prepared by Rainer's father, Robert, who is a lawyer, Ingemi would kick the ball "at great velocity toward the players standing inside the net."
Players were expected to stand their ground unflinching and to leave with the imprint of the ball on their chests, according to the letter. Rainer's letter was meant to serve notice on the town, the schools and Ingemi that he intends to file suit if his complaint is not settled during a mandatory six-month waiting period.
Rainer is seeking monetary damages for what he said was emotional harm to his son resulting from the practice.
"This is frivolous," Ingemi responded, while indicating he was limited in what he could discuss. He offered no further details in the voice mail message and could not be reached later for comment.
Meanwhile, some parents of players and one former player offered strong support for Ingemi.
"I'm very surprised that Jake would do this," said former teammate Alex Terrill, now attending Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire. "Personally, I love the coach. He was like a second father to me. I'd go to him with all my problems. He was always a great guy."
The "branding" was meant to prepare players for game situations where they stand in line and block penalty kicks, Terrill said. The coach took care to prepare the boys and prevent injuries, Terrill said. Players were instructed to keep their heads down, eyes on the ball and hands over crotch.
"Everybody did it," said Terrill, who was interviewed as he watched a Franklin Pierce soccer game. He does not remember the drill as something inflicted only on new players. "I never saw that. I don't know what was done five years ago."
"People have to get a grip already," said his mother, Gwenn Terrill. Her two sons have played a total of five years for Ingemi. She also pointed to the so-called "branding" as a legitimate soccer drill.
"It's a defensive maneuver," she said. "We really like the coach. We've never had a problem with him. Whenever anyone gets sick or injured, you get a personal call from the coach."
He can be hard-nosed, she said. "He just wants the kids to listen. He's not mean, not malicious."
Gwenn Terrill said she worries about the long-term impact of such a suit, coming on the heels of an earlier legal action charging another coach with making racist remarks.
"I get the feeling that there are a lot of parents in this town who — because of who they are — think they should be listened to," she said.
In youth sports, issues like playing time can quickly become heated and personal, Terrill said. Coaches like Ingemi donate time and effort beyond the monetary compensation paid by the school. "This is all we need," she said. "And he won't want to coach in this town anymore."
Mark Martland, father of another former Marblehead soccer player, Alex Martland, seemed frustrated by the "branding" charge. "One could call it a rite of passage," he said. "One could also say it was kind of like soccer where the kids form a wall on a penalty kick. ... It sounds like a soccer drill."
Martland, who said he has coached soccer himself, dismissed the notion that what Ingemi had done was hazing. In fact, he said, the drill would tell any coach a lot. "You find out for game situations who will have the nerve in a wall. .... If someone ducks, there's no point forming a wall. If I were the coach, I wouldn't want the kid to duck."
It could also be a team-building experience, he said.
"My son was a four-year starter," Martland said. Alex Martland sometimes had differences with Ingemi, he said, adding that, "All players have disagreements with their coaches."
Disagreements did not revolve around hazing or mistreatment of players, he said.
Jacob Rainer played soccer at Marblehead High from 2004 to 2007. The case is being handled by his father's law firm, Rainer and O'Connor in Revere. The firm said it plans to file a civil action directly against Ingemi, accusing him of assault, battery, false imprisonment and intentional infliction of emotional stress, in addition to filing claims against the school and the town.
Ingemi is in his 12th year as soccer coach at Marblehead High.