Jillian Rodriguez signs with Tennessee State; Ava Nunez earns Player of the Year honor
IMMOKALEE — Immokalee High School softball coach Ruben Lucio wishes he could have the sensational sister duo of Jillian Rodriguez and Ava Nunez for four years, but he’ll settle for one.
Jillian, a senior, and Ava, a freshman, have made the most of their only season as high school teammates this spring on the Immokalee team.
Both players, who also play for Seminole teams at Native tournaments, have attained lofty recognition this season in one way or another.
For Jillian, it was her signing with Tennessee State University, a Division I program in downtown Nashville.
For Ava, it was being named the Florida Athletic Coaches Association’s Player of the Year in Class 6A-District 12. She’s also a nominee for the Naples Daily News Player of the Year.
Lucio said both girls deserve everything they’ve earned.
“They’re students of the game. They do their jobs. They show up and they know there’s a job to do. They’ve both got great work ethic and it shows,” Lucio said.
The spotlight shined on both sisters during and after Immokalee’s 1-0 loss to Estero on April 24. Immokalee’s three seniors, including Jillian, were honored after the game, but during the game the freshman pitcher was the focus of attention. Ava battled toe-to-toe against pitcher Lauren Hobbs and Estero’s powerful lineup. The Wildcats entered the game with a 22-2 record, but mustered just two hits off Ava in seven innings.
“You’re talking about a freshman going up against a nationally-ranked team in Estero. The sky is the limit for her,” Lucio said. “She has all the tools and all the ability and her work ethic is off the charts. She wants it more than any player I’ve ever seen.”
At the plate, Ava reached base in the fourth on an error. In the sixth, she drilled the team’s hardest hit ball all night, but it landed in foul territory close to the left field line. The foul ball was one of the few times Immokalee players were able to pull a pitch against the hard-throwing Hobbs.
Lucio said Ava leads the team in batting with an average of about .400 and is second in RBIs with 27.
Ava, a right-hander who has an arsenal of four or five different pitches, said one of her goals is to play Division I college softball. Florida State University is her favorite team.
Ava and Jillian shared pitching duties earlier in the season, but now Ava is the main pitcher and Jillian handles centerfield duties.
Jillian showed her resiliency at the plate in the sixth inning when she fouled off four 2-2 pitches before fanning, one of 13 strikeouts notched by Hobbs.
“She’s an athletic player, left-handed hitter that can do just about anything on the field,” Lucio said.
She’ll be headed to college as an outfielder, but she’s been a standout pitcher for Immokalee throughout her career. In a game against 11-time state champion Naples, Jillian pitched four hitless and scoreless innings before the game was suspended due to an umpire’s illness.
It was in the infield that Rodriguez and her two fellow seniors – Sommer Erebia and Mia Gallegoes – were honored in a postgame ceremony on senior night. Jillian walked between a ‘bridge’ of teammates who raised their bats as if she was about to be knighted. Jillian was accompanied by her mom Rhonda Nunez and stepdad Armando Nunez on her left side, and her dad Ray Rodriguez and stepmom Sandra Rodriguez on her right side.
Afterwards, the seniors posed for photos with teammates and family. Ava and Jillian were in a group photo with the Estero players who they played with as youngsters for the travel ball team Tropic Wave. Jillian’s first coaches in youth softball – Lori Greco and Andrea Peterson – were also on hand to watch the game. The sisters now play for the Gold Coast Hurricanes based in Miami.
Jillian signed with Tennessee State on April 17. She said it was during a softball showcase event last summer in Tennessee that she gave a verbal commitment to the school, which is about a 12-hour drive from Immokalee.
“We’re proud of it, but kind of scared of it because it’s so far. I guess it’s scary for every parent to see their kid leave home,” said her stepdad Armando, who is also an assistant coach for Immokalee.
“I’m very proud of her,” Ava said. “We’ve played ever since we were really young because my dad played and so did my mom. This season was a lot of fun. I’m glad I got to play with her this year.”
Likewise, Jillian said she’ll cherish this one high season playing with Ava.
“She’s a lifesaver. I love her so much. She’s awesome,” Jillian said. “I enjoyed playing my last season here with her. Those are a lot of memories I’ll hold close to heart with my little sister.”