CHAMPAIGN — Santiago Rodriguez’s entire body visibly shivered as he walked to the Champaign Central boys’ soccer team’s bus following Saturday afternoon’s Class 2A Centennial Regional final at a rainy, chilly Tommy Stewart field.
But Rodriguez didn’t feel cold after the Maroons’ 4-1 win against Mt. Zion secured Central’s second straight regional championship.
“Up here,” he said, pointing to his head, “I couldn’t be warmer. It’s awesome.”
It wasn’t necessarily his four goals, which gave him 100 for his high school career and 48 for the season, that had him buzzing.
It was the fact that his team, which lost three first- and second-team News-Gazette All-Area players from last year’s team, put him in a position to dominate and pull out a regional championship.
“We lost a lot of guys last year, a lot of big players,” Rodriguez said. “To prove that we can still do it, it was really awesome. It felt really good.”
Instead of the senior stars from last year, Central coach Nick Clegg fielded a roster that included four freshmen on Saturday. On a day in which rain poured and temperatures dipped into the 40s, it took the top-seeded Maroons (19-4-3) time to thaw against the fourth-seeded Braves (15-6-3).
But when they did, they put on a show.
About 20 minutes into the match, Rodriguez broke through with this first goal after freshman Tim Ngugi slotted through a pass before Rodriguez placed the ball past Mt. Zion’s goalkeeper.
Rodriguez scored just a few minutes later on a shot from a difficult angle. Mt. Zion pulled one back early in the second half, but Rodriguez quickly quelled that comeback with two more quick goals.
To senior Spencer Bauer, Saturday’s win showed just how far Champaign Central has come during a season that began with a few relatively disappointing results.
“I feel like we’re making strides, getting to where we should be,” Bauer said. “We’re not (suffering) any upsets.”
The time to avoid upsets, though, is over. On Tuesday night, the Maroons will play Springfield (16-4-3) in the Class 2A Bloomington Sectional semifinals at 7 p.m. The Senators knocked out the Maroons in last year’s sectional final, a loss that was tough to swallow for a team with high hopes.
Roles changed this year, including that of their star forward. Rodriguez, The News-Gazette’s 2018 Player of the Year who committed to DePaul before his senior season began, boosted his scoring total after finishing with 30 last season once forwards Pablo Diaz and Reynaldo Zarco graduated.
Off the field, though, Clegg said Rodriguez hasn’t changed.
“His demeanor is the exact same,” Clegg said. “He’s still sticking around to pick things up. He’s super humble. He’s a good kid.”
Through shivers after Saturday’s game, Rodriguez didn’t focus on his goalscoring prowess. He simply expressed his gratitude that his teammates put him in a position to score.
“We had some position changes, and instead of complaining, they’ve taken their new roles and they’ve really embraced it,” he said. “It’s just a big group of friends that are playing together having a great time. That’s how it has to be and that’s how it has been.”