Van Buren coach Nathan Almond has watched the Class 5A men’s football title game at least 10 times in the four weeks since his team won a championship.
While Almond is proud of the Pointers’ work, he doesn’t just admire what they’ve accomplished. He is looking for flaws, small mistakes that will allow him not to wait 15 more years for another title.
But every time Almond turns on the movie, he sees the goals.
First, it was an overlapping run from Pedro Rodriguez before hitting home an early score to put Van Buren ahead. An hour later, it was Rodriguez battling through a tackle and feeding Almond’s son Kylan for the winner.
The Pointers’ last game wasn’t about revenge — even though they only lost twice in the regular season, both times to the same Russellville team, they outscored 2-1 for the 5A crown.
It was about the evolution of Van Buren, and with it, the growth of Rodriguez, the Arkansas Democrat Gazette All-Arkansas Preps Boys Football Player of the Year. In his first full season of college football, the junior slipped inside his typical right wing placement in central midfield and sparked the Pointers’ mighty offense with 29 goals and 16 assists, team highs in both categories.
“He’s right up there,” Almond said of Rodriguez when asked if he’s the best player he’s ever coached. “I’ve coached three of my sons and he’s a better player than all of them. … He has a very good touch and we needed the ball at his feet more than anyone else.”
Rodriguez’s rise was by no means predestined. As a freshman, the 5-11 forward went to school in Sallisaw, Okla., just over 20 minutes west of the Arkansas border.
But Sallisaw didn’t have a football program, and as a result, Rodriguez’s older brothers never got a chance to play for their high school team.
Rodriguez could have taken a similar path. He was playing for the Northwest Arkansas Legends with several of his now Van Buren teammates. He wouldn’t have needed to adjust to life at a new school, learning the intricacies of a different system while building relationships with teammates and classmates.
The challenge – and the opportunity to do something his brothers hadn’t – excited Rodriguez.
“I didn’t belong when I came here, so I had to earn it,” Rodriguez said. “I was a new player coming in and [Coach Almond] I didn’t know much about myself, so I had to go out there and scramble.”
Flashing early wasn’t hard. For whatever Rodriguez lacked in experience in his sophomore debut, he made up for in his natural skills.
“The physical tools were there. He had a really good touch of speed and size,” Almond said. “I knew he could play. The biggest question mark was how he fitted into the team. … That kind of [intangible] things took a bit of watching and seeing, but it all came together.”
With covid-19 ending the Pointers’ 2020 season early, Van Buren’s 5A-West foes didn’t get a look at Rodriguez until this spring.
But Russellville had done its homework. The Cyclones kept the Pointers scoreless for only the second time in their first 13 games while handing Van Buren his first loss of the year on April 15.
Stopping Rodriguez was key.
“He’s fantastic at finding the space between the lines,” Russellville coach Jared Fuller said. “You can say, ‘Hey, let’s tag this guy all the time,’ but he just sneakily finds ways to open up.
“That’s what makes the players special – they find those spaces and know what to do with the ball when they receive the ball in those spaces.”
Most teams failed to retain Rodriguez. He scored the only goal in the Pointers’ regular season finale, giving Van Buren his first conference title since 2006. He found the back of the net in the Pointers’ semifinal win over Benton.
It was fitting that he was involved in both goals en route to the title, earning tournament most valuable player honors along the way.
College football is definitely in the picture — Almond said Rodriguez will be in several showcase events this summer and his club team will play other out-of-state programs this fall in Texas.
There’s also the chance for Rodriguez to return with the Pointers who have graduated five seniors and could have as many as 14 seniors with a state championship ring already in their possession next spring.
It’s hard to imagine anyone having more of a say in another potential run in late May than one of Arkansas’ top individual talents.
“I’m in love with the game,” Rodriguez said. “When we had those important games…that’s when I realized I could be one of the best players in the state.”
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Rodriguez in brief
THE SCHOOL Van Buren
TO CLASSIFY Junior
THE SIZE 5-11
WEIGHT 155 pounds
REMARKABLE Scored 29 goals and assisted on 16 as the Pointers finished 21-2-1 to win the second men’s soccer state championship in Van Buren history. … Named to the 5A All-State and All-Conference teams. … Recorded the lone score in the Pointers’ regular-season finale to clinch the 5A West conference title, which was Van Buren’s first since 2006. … Traded from Sallisaw, Okla., after his freshman year.