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BOYS SOCCER PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Van Buren junior makes right moves for Pointers

by Mitchell Gladstone | June 13, 2021 at 2:50 a.m.
Van Buren’s Pedro Rodriguez (left) looks to pass the ball to a teammate Saturday during the Class 5A boys soccer championship in Benton. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Justin Cunningham)

Van Buren Coach Nathan Almond has watched the Class 5A boys state soccer title game at least 10 times in the four weeks since his team captured a championship.

As much as Almond is proud of the Pointers' handiwork, he's not just admiring what they accomplished. He's searching for flaws, for the little mistakes that will ensure he doesn't have to wait 15 more years for another title.

But every time Almond turns on the film, he sees the goals.

First, it was an overlapping run from Pedro Rodriguez before banging home an early score to put Van Buren in front. An hour later, it was Rodriguez fighting through a tackle and feeding Almond's son, Kylan, for the game-winner.

The Pointers' final game was not about revenge -- even though they had only lost twice in the regular season, both times to the same Russellville side they topped 2-1 for the 5A crown.

It was about the evolution of Van Buren, and with it, the growth of Rodriguez, the Arkansas Democrat Gazette's All-Arkansas Preps Boys Soccer Player of the Year. In his first full season of varsity soccer, the junior slid inside from his typical right-wing spot to central midfield and sparked the Pointers' powerful offense with 29 goals and 16 assists, team-highs in both categories.

"He's right up there," Almond said of Rodriguez when asked if he's the best player he's ever coached. "I've coached three of my sons and he's a better player than all of them. ... He's got a really good touch and we needed the ball at his feet more than anybody else's."

Rodriguez's rise was by no means preordained. As a freshman, the 5-11 forward went to school in Sallisaw, Okla., just more than 20 minutes west of the Arkansas border.

But Sallisaw didn't have a soccer program, and as a result, Rodriguez's older brothers never had the chance to play for their high school team.

Rodriguez could've taken a similar path. He was playing for the Northwest Arkansas Legends with several of his now-Van Buren teammates. He would not have needed to adjust to life at a new school, learning the intricacies of a different system while building relationships with teammates and classmates alike.

The challenge -- and the opportunity to do something his brothers hadn't -- excited Rodriguez.

"I didn't have my spot when I got here, so I had to earn it," Rodriguez said. "I was a new player coming in and [Coach Almond] didn't know much about me, so I had to go in there and work my butt off."

Flashing early wasn't hard. For all that Rodriguez lacked in experience during his early days as a sophomore, he made up for in natural skills.

"The physical tools were there. He had a really nice touch with speed and size," Almond said. "I knew he could play. The biggest question mark was how he fit in with the team. ... Those kinds of [intangible] things took a little bit of time to watch and see, but all of that came together."

With covid-19 ending the Pointers' 2020 season early, Van Buren's 5A-West foes didn't get a look at Rodriguez until this spring.

But Russellville had done its homework. The Cyclones kept Pointers scoreless for just the second time in their first 13 games while handing Van Buren its first loss of the year on April 15.

Shutting off Rodriguez was the key.

"He's fantastic at finding the space between the lines," Russellville Coach Jared Fuller said. "You can say, 'Hey, let's mark this guy all the time,' but he just sneakily finds ways to get open.

"That's what makes players special -- they find those spaces and know what to do with the ball when they get the ball in those spaces."

Most teams couldn't manage to keep Rodriguez down. He scored the lone goal in the Pointers' regular-season finale, giving Van Buren its first conference title since 2006. He found the back of the net in the Pointers' semifinal win against Benton.

It was only fitting he was involved on both goals en route to the title, picking up tournament most valuable player honors along the way.

College soccer is certainly in the picture -- Almond said Rodriguez will participate in multiple showcase events this summer, and his club team will play against other out-of-state programs this fall in Texas.

There's also the chance for Rodriguez to run it back with the Pointers who graduated five seniors and could have as many as 14 seniors with a state championship ring already in their possession next spring.

It's hard to imagine anyone having a bigger say in another potential late May run than one of Arkansas' best individual talents.

"I'm in love with the game," Rodriguez said. "When we had those important games...that was where I realized I could be one of the best players in the state."

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Rodriguez at a glance

SCHOOL Van Buren

CLASS Junior

POSITION Forward

HEIGHT 5-11

WEIGHT 155 pounds

NOTEWORTHY Scored 29 goals and assisted on 16 as the Pointers finished 21-2-1 to earn the second boys soccer state championship in Van Buren history. … Named to the 5A all-state and all-conference teams. … Logged the lone score in the Pointers’ regular-season finale to clinch the 5A-West conference title, which was Van Buren’s first since 2006. … Transferred from Sallisaw (Okla.) after his freshman year.

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