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Malden High grad Rincon right at home on Merrimack pitch

Michael Rincon moves the ball for Merrimack.
Michael Rincon moves the ball for Merrimack.Credit:

A soccer standout

Yes, Michael Rincon still has the mohawk.

It’s not as sharp and pointy as his classmates at Malden High might remember — he stopped gelling it straight it up — but it’s still there. It’s part of his soccer game. It’s part of his character. “I haven’t gotten tired of it,” he said. “It’s what I like.”

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Tony Martone, entering his 30th season at the helm of the Merrimack College men’s program, told him he’d have to shave it. Maybe Martone forgot after Rincon played so well his freshman year, on and off the field.

For high-character players, Martone can make adjustments.

For a long time, Rincon doubted he’d ever be able to play college soccer.

Malden High coach Jeremiah Smith doubted him too, but that was before he had ever seen Rincon play. All Smith knew was that he had an eighth-grader everybody kept talking about.

“I’m always a little doubtful when I hear about a promising young freshman that will come in and contribute right away,” Smith said.

By the time Malden’s first game rolled around in 2006, Rincon was the starting center midfielder. It was quite a responsibility for a freshman. But still, “he was our leader,” Smith said. “He was great. But the biggest obstacle that he ran into playing high school ball was trying to do too much.”

Rincon could dribble around two or three extra defenders, often with ease.

Smith wanted him to play simply. But it was like asking Peter Parker to stop using his Spider-Man suit. And Rincon teammates at Malden wanted to see Spider-Man.

“In high school, [some players would think], ‘Just give the ball to Michael and let him try to dribble,’ ” Rincon said.

As time went on, he learned how to play different styles of soccer at different levels, with teammates of various skill and experience, and with coaches who asked him to use different skills.

For Smith’s money, no high school player in 2010 could move faster with the ball at his feet than Rincon.

And Brookline coach Jeff Katz , after his squad escaped out of Malden with a 2-1 victory that fall (Rincon scored the Tornados’ only goal), was quoted in a Globe story, “I’ve never seen a more dangerous player.”

At first, it didn’t make sense to Smith. There were sprinters on the Malden team who routinely bested Rincon during indoor track meets.

“We had guys that could beat him in the 100,” Smith said. “And they would beat him at the 400. Yet with the ball on his foot, he didn’t slow down. He worked too hard.”

Rincon finished his high school career as a Globe All-Scholastic with 41 goals and 19 assists. But he got a late start on the college search and was still unsure of his future during February of his senior year.

Boston College was pursuing him hard, but the school was taking some time to put together a financial package and Rincon was getting nervous. He didn’t want to start second-guessing his own ability again. If the Eagles were taking this long, maybe they didn’t want him that bad.

Merrimack was interested. Rincon visited the school and committed all in one day.

“He’s the typical student-athlete that I personally love to work with,” Martone said. “He comes from a good family, good background, and has good moral and ethical values. And he has tremendous physical capabilities.”

Rincon figured he wouldn’t start during his freshman year. “Maybe I’ll play 40 minutes a game,” he thought.  

In the team’s first preseason game, Rincon came off the bench. He played the entire second game. He ended up starting 17 of the team’s 19 regular-season games in a 9-7-3 season and was a Northeast-10 All-Rookie selection as an outside midfielder.

“And he has a lot of upward potential,” Martone said. “He could be one of the best players in New England in a couple years.”

Martone speculates that if Rincon progresses as expected — and with his work ethic, which his coaches say is unmatched, it shouldn’t be a problem — he might land a professional gig after college. Martone figures it might be as an outside back, where he could use his speed to make flanking runs and join the attack.

Smith laughs at the idea.

Not because he doesn’t think his former player could go pro.

“I just want to be there when he gets his diploma,” Smith said. He said in a decade of coaching, he never had a player as good as Rincon.

Last year, Smith took his whole varsity team up to Merrimack for a game. They all looked on with amazement. “This could be you, maybe,” coaches tell them. They’ll doubt themselves. The players are too fast in college, they’ll figure. They’d be moving more like a bicycle on the highway.

But Rincon thought the same thing.

Malden is not a soccer hotbed. It doesn’t even field a freshman team. But the Malden kids saw Rincon last year, and suddenly they believed. Hope can take many shapes. This time it was in the shape of a mohawk.

Here and there

On leave since July, Merrimack College athletic director Glenn Hoffman resigned Tuesday. Dean O’Keefe will continue in his role as interim while a search is conducted. Men’s hockey coach Mark Dennehy and women’s basketball coach Monique LeBlanc were promoted to associate athletic directors . . . Georgetown High grad Keely Maguire has been named a captain of the women’s cross-country team at the University of New Hampshire. Maguire is coming off an outstanding track season in which she set the school record in the 3,000 meters, finishing at 9:33.76 . . . Winchester’s Ann Senko, 20, finished 12th overall at the US Open Championship swim meet in Indianapolis earlier this month. A member of the Bluefish Swim Club, she earned sixth place in the 100-meter fly with a time of 1:00.53.

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