IMMOKALEE —High school girls varsity soccer in Collier County is loaded with players who have racked up years of experience playing for youth, school and club teams during their careers.
Jillian Rodriguez isn’t among that group. Her soccer career is far briefer than the opponents she faces as a starting midfielder for the Immokalee High School girls varsity team. Until this fall, Jillian had never played soccer. No youth games; no tournaments; no showcases; no practices.
Despite her inexperience, Jillian, a sophomore, has rapidly ascended into a key role for Immokalee as she’s become one of the few Seminole Tribe members to play the sport. Her eagerness and athleticism helped her earn a starting spot in the midfield and she scored her first goal within the first few weeks of the season.
“There are players that have gone through this program their whole career and never scored a goal,” said Immokalee coach Ruben Lucio. “About four or five games into the season, she scores her first one. It was good to see her celebrate.”
Jillian’s goal was her team’s first goal in a 2-2 tie against LaBelle on Nov. 14.
“It felt so good. My first year playing and I scored,” said Jillian, who sent the ball into the net on a rebound after a shot by a teammate was blocked by the LaBelle goalie. “Once the goalie blocked it, it bounced back off and I got the shot.”
Scoring a goal isn’t the only thing Jillian has accomplished on the field that has caught the eye of her coach.
“You have to remember that she’s 10 games into her whole career and she picked up the sport three months ago, so the fact that you even see her turn with the ball, you see her give passes, you see her stop the ball, you see her tackle; it’s one of those things where it’s like how far she’s come in a matter of only two months,” Lucio said as his team warmed up to face Lely at home Dec. 13.
Jillian’s primary sport takes place in the spring; she’s an outfielder for Immokalee’s varsity softball team. She’s also a cheerleader, but she said soccer has always appealed to her, yet the timing never seemed right to join a team. This year she decided to make the time right.
“I’ve always watched the sport and I liked it, but I never had the time. My mom [Rhonda Rodriguez] encouraged me to come out and try it, and I actually really like it,” Jillian said.
Jillian’s first steps as a soccer player didn’t go smoothly. She suffered an injury in her first practice with the team.
“I heard last year that she wanted to play. She’s a very skilled softball player. Most players stick to one sport,” Lucio said. “I asked her if she wanted to come out and she said yes. First practice and she sprained her ankle. I finally get her out here and she sprains her ankle.”
Jillian recovered from the injury and stepped right into a young starting lineup, having to face far more experienced players.
“She’s going against players who have played for eight years,” Lucio said.
It’s not just more experienced players Jillian has to battle, but also taller ones. At 5-foot-2, Jillian often encounters opponents in the midfield who are four and five inches taller, but she doesn’t give an inch in competitive terms.
“Most teams average about 5-6, 5-7; we average 5-foot. It’s a difference, but you have to use your body and how to play the sport,” Lucio said. “She battles. The good thing is she plays other sports, so she has that competiveness to her already. I think [soccer] is the most physical sport for a young girl to play in high school. You need that toughness.”
“Make sure you defend them well and make sure that you don’t let them run all over you just because you’re smaller than them,” Jillian said.
Immokalee’s young team reached the Christmas break with just one win and two ties in 15 games, but Jillian said she’s glad she opted to play this season and plans to keep playing for the remainder of high school.
One reason opening the new chapter in her sports career has been made easier, Jillian said, is because of her teammates, which include descendent and fellow midfielder Jada Holdiness. The pair handled midfielder duties in the center and left side in a 2-0 loss against Lely.
“Jada’s done very well,” Lucio said. “They have the athleticism and she’s done a great job.”
Jillian said the team has helped make her first season an enjoyable experience for someone without any experience.
“The girls have helped me a lot,” Jillian said. “This team is based on teamwork, and it’s a lot of fun working with the girls and having a team behind you.”