Picture this: Maroons' shining star Rodriguez just getting started

Picture this: Maroons' shining star Rodriguez just getting started

CHAMPAIGN — When Santiago Rodriguez ponders what, besides soccer, affects his life most these days, three topics come to the forefront.

Heritage, traveling and photography.

Coincidentally, the entire trio rounds back to make him an even better soccer player.

That was on display in spades during the Champaign Central athlete's junior campaign. His team-best 30 goals and 19 assists not only helped the Maroons to their first regional championship since 2007, but also secured him News-Gazette All-Area Player of the Year status.

Paired with seniors Reynaldo Zarco and Pablo Diaz, the latter a transfer from Urbana, Rodriguez received plenty of opportunities to shine.

And he cashed in on a majority of them for a crew that nearly captured a Class 2A sectional title.

"In my mind, it was the equivalent of (Gareth) Bale-(Karim) Benzema-(Cristiano) Ronaldo," Rodriguez said. "Or (Lionel) Messi-Neymar-(Luis) Suarez."

Rodriguez pauses after that latter grouping. He realizes he's slipped up.

"Preferably the first one," he added with a chuckle. "I don't know why I said the second one. That's a mistake. If my dad finds out, he'll be upset."

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Jacobo Rodriguez is the starting point for son Santiago's soccer career.

The elder Rodriguez grew up playing the sport in the streets of Ponferrada, Spain. Jacobo tended the nets, leading Santiago to say Jacobo passed down "the heart of a goalkeeper" to Santiago.

"He's very knowledgeable," Central coach Nick Clegg said of his striker. "Santi definitely has some of those genes in him where he could be a fantastic goalie."

Instead, Rodriguez is a potent passer and scorer with, as Clegg describes it, "blazing speed." Natural quickness doesn't account for Rodriguez's knowledge of the sport.

That, again, ties back to Dad.

"We used to watch Real Madrid games together, and he'd just point out stuff the players do that really helped me interpret the game," Rodriguez said. "Just the flow. If you don't have the flow of soccer in you, it's really hard to learn that."

And even though Rodriguez doesn't wear the Maroons' keeper jersey, having a father with that position's background has proved critical to the youngster's rapid rise in the prep ranks.

"Something that he taught me is how goalkeepers think, which really helps me as a forward because I know what they're going to do," Rodriguez said. "Which helps me do the thing that they would not do normally."

The decisive moment when Rodriguez determined he could be more of an offensive threat occurred in third grade. Rodriguez felt he needed to pick up the scoring slack for his park district squad.

It's not quite the same with Central, but the Maroons certainly don't mind Rodriguez continuing to fill the net.

That said, Clegg doesn't see Rodriguez as just a goals guy.

"He will play defense super, super hard no matter what," Clegg said. "He's just the most versatile player. He can cause havoc."

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Rodriguez's family roots provide him the chance to be a bit of a globetrotter in his young age.

In addition to visiting Spain, Rodriguez also has traveled to France and numerous states in the U.S. Beyond recognizing differences in his favorite sport, Rodriguez simply enjoys expanding his mind's boundaries.

"It really enriches my character, helps me to be a better person through being able to understand people better," Rodriguez said. "It helps you to see someone else — someone you've never seen at school before — to interpret them."

In his journeys, Rodriguez still finds the time to compare and contrast what he sees on the pitch in east central Illinois with what he watches elsewhere.

Spanish players, for example, display "quicker passes" and "a lot more movement off the ball," versus "more of a direct approach" he witnesses in high school. This is another reason Rodriguez feels he's able to thrive with the ball on his foot.

"I would describe (Central's) attack as ... the best of both worlds," Rodriguez said. "Rey and Pablo being so technical allowed for us to play the ball quickly in between us. And their passing ability also allowed me to get through for that direct approach."

Rodriguez has a female cousin living in San Francisco who chats with Rodriguez about the uber-competitive nature of California soccer. Rodriguez also keeps close watch on leagues in not only Spain, but also France, Germany, England and Italy.

Anywhere in particular he'd especially like to see a match live?

"I would say Argentina, but I think there's a possibility that I could die," Rodriguez said with a nervous laugh. "They're passionate to the point of physical violence."

★ ★ ★

Photography is one of Rodriguez's newer ventures.

As he explains it, he had an open elective spot on his course list, and some friends mentioned they'd enjoyed their past forays into photography.

He's sure glad he heeded their advice.

"I remember, when I was in preschool, I used to go to an art class at Krannert Center," Rodriguez said. "I've always drawn. I guess this is just an extension of that."

Some might wonder how this hobby shares a bond with soccer, as do Rodriguez's heritage and love for travel. Can photography directly enhance Rodriguez's game? Perhaps not from an Xs and Os standpoint. But from the perspective of giving Rodriguez a more open outlook, it certainly can.

"Soccer is just a form of art, really, in my mind," he said. "If you're not creative, you're not going to learn to do well. The game's all about improvement and improvisation. If you just follow a strict rulebook ... you're not going to go very far."

Clegg sees Rodriguez using this frame of reference to prove wrong any doubters.

"Some people thought as a sophomore he might not get any better because he was (already) that good," said Clegg, referencing a 16-goal, eight-assist 2017 campaign. "He's been working on his opposite foot, his finishing and just really growing as a player."

There's one thing Rodriguez isn't quite talented enough to accomplish, though: Snapping an image from a soccer match in which he's competing.

Could he do it, is there a moment from 2018 he'd select first and foremost?

"When Pablo scored that second goal in the (sectional) semifinal," Rodriguez said of a 2-1 triumph over Jacksonville. "That was just pure bliss. I think that was my happiest moment all season."

N-G boys' soccer Players of the Year

YEAR ATHLETE SCHOOL

2018 Santiago Rodriguez, Champaign Central

2017 Bennett Anderson, Urbana

2016 Caleb Griffin, Danville

2015 Panos Voulgaris, Uni High

2014 Cameron Griffin, Danville

2013 Saul Downie, Urbana

2012 Miguel Fierro, Urbana

2011 J.J. Malone, Blue Ridge

2010 Adam Blackman, Urbana

2009 Jacob Bushue, Centennial

2008 Richard Kayede, Urbana

2007 Jonathan Hinds, Centennial

2006 Corey Kallembach, Centennial

2005 Nick Leigh, Urbana

2004 Michael Marten, Judah Christian

2003 Joe D'Amico, Centennial

2002 Tony Cook, Monticello

2001 Nic Wedig, Centennial

2000 Jason Curtiss, Centennial

1999 Wally Musumeci, Champaign Central

1998 Kirk Strebin, Danville

1997 Tavis Bones, Champaign Central

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