IMMOKALEE — For what seems like forever, Naples High School softball has ruled Collier County. For many years Naples was the state’s most dominant team, something Immokalee painfully knew first-hand.
No softball program in Florida has won more state championships than Naples (10), which used to pound its county competition – including Immokalee– with relative ease. In fact, from 2007 to 2011, Naples outscored Immokalee by a staggering 96-2 according to results on MaxPreps.com.
But this season – after a history of lopsided losses – Jillian Rodriguez and her Immokalee teammates did something for the first time in school history: they beat Naples.
Rodriguez, a junior left-handed pitcher, notched the victory in the circle and shined at the plate as Immokalee topped Naples, 14-9, on Feb. 23 at Naples High School.
“Oh my gosh. That was a crazy game,” said Rodriguez, the only Tribal member on the squad. “It was for us the most exciting game because we’ve never beaten Naples. Ever. First time in history is a big deal. I know me and the girls were beyond excited over that win.”
Rodriguez came on in relief in the second inning and provided six stellar innings. She allowed only two earned runs, scattered seven hits and fanned four. She helped her own cause with a 2-for-4 night at the plate, which included a pair of extra base hits, two RBIs and two runs scored.
Eight of Immokalee’s runs came in the final two innings to secure the monumental victory.
“It was big for the program and for these girls,” said first-year Immokalee coach Ruben Lucio. “Seeing their expressions walking off the field when they closed out that game, it was a big moment for us, especially moving forward knowing that [we] can beat those teams.”
As she was growing up, Rodriguez knew all about Naples’ storied past and the fact Immokalee always came out on the losing end.
“To finally come out on top was a feeling like no other,” Rodriguez said.
Immokalee’s win was no fluke. The program has certainly turned the corner with proof being its best start ever in the form of an 11-2 record as of mid-March. Four of those wins have come against Collier foes Gulf Coast, Palmetto Ridge and St. John Neumann. The team went 3-1 in Gulliver Prep’s tournament in Miami as Lucio has tried to compile a strong schedule with hopes it will help pave the way for a successful postseason on a club loaded with sophomores and juniors that is bound to get better.
“These players have been playing together for such a long time and it has finally gotten to the point where the program can reap some of those benefits,” Lucio said. “We’ve got some good leadership when it comes to the upperclassmen.”
Rodriguez has been the starting pitcher in most games. She’s provided reliable results with an ERA under 2.00.
“She’s really good,” Lucio said. “She’s really accurate. She keeps the other team on their toes. We’ve got a good defense behind her, but she makes good pitches. She makes the pitches that count and she allows us to keep the game close when we’re behind, and when we get up, she allows us to close those out.”
At 5-foot-1 and 120 pounds, Rodriguez knows she doesn’t have the big frame of a power pitcher, but she makes up for that in other aspects, including keeping batters off balance.
“She has a lot of movement on her pitches which allows her to excel in this kind of competition,” Lucio said.
“I’m not the really big girl, the really fast pitcher, but whenever I give you something, I’m going to give you something that has movement that you’ve never seen before,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez said working with team pitching coach Marissa Ocanas has helped her improve tremendously compared to a year ago.
“Way, way better. Pitching coach Marissa has helped me a lot. She’s always been there for me with my pitching and always told me to never give up,” said Rodriguez, who has also excelled with the bat. She’s hit above .400 for most of the season and has had several multiple hit games.
Rodriguez’s family has been part of the team’s success – her stepfather Mondo Nunez is an assistant coach – or witnessed it; her mother Rhonda Nunez and aunt Susan Davis attend most games.
As good as this season has been so far, Rodriguez is already looking forward to next year when her sister Ava, also a pitcher, begins high school.
“Next year she’ll be here with me and I’m very excited about that,” Rodriguez said.
Immokalee hopes to keep the good vibes going in the second half of this season with an eye toward trying to win its first-ever district title. The Class 6A-12 tournament will be held April 24-26 at Immokalee High.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Rodriguez said. “Definitely the best season that I’ve had here.”