The faces are familiar, the roles are different.
Highland Park High School has a pair of new head coaches heading into the 2023-’24 school year, with Rodrigo Pozo taking over boys soccer and Matt Bacinich doing the same for boys and girls swimming.
Neither are new to the Giants, and Pozo has been around the school since his student-athlete days.
A 2017 graduate, Pozo played soccer for one season at Carroll University in Waukesha, Wisconsin, before transferring to Northeastern Illinois.
“Being around the area opened the door to coaching at Highland Park,” Pozo said.
He started as a volunteer assistant on coach Blake Novtony’s staff in 2018, working with the freshman team. Novotny told Pozo he’d be stepping down after the 2022 season and Pozo pursued the job, wanting to build on his predecessor’s legacy.
“I owe a lot of my success (to Novotny),” Pozo said. “He played a huge role in my development as a coach, athlete and student.”
Pozo appreciated Novotny’s attention to the entire program — rather than just the varsity or the top players — as well as his ability to bring out the potential in all the Giants.
“He was able to do on-the-spot adjustments that could make them the best player possible,” Pozo said.
Pozo had been running the Giants’ summer program the past two years. He’s expecting big numbers when practice starts in the fall for the program’s four levels: varsity, JV, sophomore and freshman.
“It shows kids are interested in soccer,” he said of the large turnout at an informational meeting before school let out.
Highland Park has some key pieces back, including rising senior strikers Angel Riano and Parker Feder.
Coming off three straight losing seasons, the Giants’ goal is to compete in the Central Suburban League’s North Division and make some noise in the IHSA playoffs, Pozo said.
“We’re looking to win conference each year,” he said. “These last (few) seasons have been tough for us, haven’t gone our way. It’s something we’re going to work on in training.”
Bacinich, who calls himself “a lifelong North Shore swimmer,” competed at Glenbrook North. He has coached at several clubs, including Glenbrook Aquatics and Patriot Aquatics, and had a stint as head boys swim coach at Lake Forest.
He’s also been at Highland Park for several years as girls water polo head coach and boys swimming assistant.
“I believe it’s a really good fit for me as a school,” Bacinich said.
Now he takes over for 20-year coach Tim Sirois, who retired after leading the Giants boys team to a historic season.
Highland Park finished fourth at state — their highest since taking fourth in 1959 — and senior Kevin Obochi won the 50-yard freestyle in 20.34 seconds. He became the program’s first state champ since Bill Merkle took first in the 100 backstroke in 1986.
Obochi also finished third in the 100 butterfly and swam on two relays that won medals: the runnerup 200 free and fifth-place 400 free.
“There’s no two ways around it,” Basinich said. “This past year was an absolute monster of a graduating class. … We’re definitely going to have a little bit of a reset year.”
The Giants do return the diving state runnerup in Noam Kulbak, who trains with the reigning state champ, Glenbrook North rising junior Matthew Yuan.
“We’re really proud of what we were able to achieve over the past season,” Bacinich said. “We’re hoping to keep it up.”
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